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Council to vote on new funding to combat homelessness

Thursday, August 23, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

The Austin City Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee recommended unanimously this week to grant $100,000 to the affordable-housing nonprofit Foundation Communities to provide permanent supportive housing in the city. The full Council will consider the measure at its Sept. 27 meeting.

Tuesday’s vote came about four months after Foundation Communities lost a bid with the city to provide permanent supportive housing services to the chronically homeless, particularly frequent users of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) and the Downtown Austin Community Court. Foundation Communities barely lost out to Front Steps, but the group’s contract remained viable in the event more funding became available.

That happened recently when officials at the city’s Health and Human Services Department “discovered” $100,000 in unencumbered funds in their FY12 budget. If Council approves the allocation, Foundation Communities will be required to use those funds to provide permanent supportive housing services specifically geared to users of the Downtown Austin Community Court, which is an alternative to Municipal Court created by the city to offer creative sentencing, such as drug treatment, to misdemeanor offenders. Those served by the community court are one of the priority populations of the original Request for Application process. The proposed new contract will have an analogous timeframe to the one awarded Front Steps in April: Sept. 27, 2012 to Sept. 30, 2014, with one extension.


The Foundation Communities’ contract won’t be the only one related to homelessness that Council will be voting on in September. Numerous new and renewing contracts and inter-local agreements – with groups such as the ARCH, Austin Travis County Integral Care, Community Action Network and Ending Community Homelessness (ECHO) – need to be addressed before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Perhaps the most compelling of these contracts relates to the acceptance of a federal Emergency Shelter Grant (ESG) grant for $185,933.  

Council Member Mike Martinez wondered if the funds for that ESG grant are already encumbered or if they’re only to be used in an emergency.

“I asked because we have a pending request from a coalition of downtown churches who are trying to come up with some pilot program funds for women and children’s sheltering on a nightly basis,” Martinez said. Those churches would provide the services themselves but would require $17,000 for nightly security.

“I don’t believe this new funding is eligible for that,” responded HHSD Manager Susan Gehring. “In the past it had been, and it was really used for that purpose.” Now, Gehring said, ESG grant funding is dedicated to housing, rather than sheltering, a result of a change in federal policy.

“ESG grants used to be called Emergency Shelter Grants,” Gehring said, but the federal government changed it over the last year to Emergency Solutions Grants. “They’re looking at changing the focus of the grant — looking at rapid re-housing, getting people off the streets and into housing as soon as possible. It’s a bit of a reshift for the community and it’s really moving us from intermittent emergency actions to really kind of a thoughtful and planned solution.”

A portion of that funding will go to the ARCH, Gehring said, another portion to the Downtown Austin Community Court, and the rest bid out for a contract “for someone to do some overall coordination around emergency solutions and rapid re-housing.”

Staff also told the committee that the operations contract for the homeless shelter, ARCH, is about to expire. And though Front Steps was the only bidder on that $4.67 million contract two years ago, another group has recently expressed interest in throwing its hat in the ring. Because of the late date, however, staff is recommending Council grant a one-year contract extension to Front Steps so the contract-bidding process isn’t rushed.

“I would recommend a year extension,” Gehring said. “Getting an application of this complex nature on the street, do it well, give people time to respond, that way you’d have some transition time built in, too, if it was needed.”

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