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Officials say providing housing is critical for mental health services

Thursday, February 7, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The fallout from the failure of $73 million worth of affordable housing bonds in November 2012 continues to ripple through city organizations and bodies. The latest concern comes from a group of officials who came before Austin’s Public Safety Commission to discuss the state of mental health services in the city.


There, a call for housing echoed through remarks delivered by Travis County Judge Nancy Hohengarten, Travis County Mental Health Public Defender Office Director Jeanette Kinard, Travis County prosecutor Michelle Hallee, Austin-Travis County Integral Care Chief Program Operations Officer Dawn Handley, Integral Care Director of Practice Management Andres Guariguata, and Brackenridge Hospital’s Emergency Room chief Dr. Christopher Ziebell.


“Housing, housing, housing, housing, and housing,” Ziebell said. “That is the number one thing that I think everybody across the spectrum can agree (on): If we had stable environments to put people in to, they would do better.”


Handley followed with a clarification: “Not just housing in and of itself, but housing with support.”


The discussion came the same day as the release of the latest point in time count of the region’s homeless population. According to Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, that figure has dropped by 5.5 percent over figures published in January 2012.


“The estimates from the 2013 PIT show that progress is being made, especially in housing,” said Howard in a press release. “Since 2008 we have increased the total number of units available by 27 percent, and the number of homeless individuals has decreased by 39 percent.”


Still, she noted that “we also know that a ‘snapshot’ is not a complete picture.” Howard was not ready to drop her call for more housing. “We have an urgent need for more housing and shelter, especially for women and children,” she said in the release.


The November failure of the housing bond left Austin City Council members, city staff, and advocates scrambling to fill what would have been six years of affordable housing financing. Two Council resolutions called on City Manager Marc Ott to come back to that body with ideas that could range from city-issued (read: not voter approved) bonds to a return to the ballot box as soon as 2013.


As part of their discussion with Public Safety Commissioners, Hohengarten and her colleagues offered what could serve as the strongest argument for affordable housing: A cost comparison.


Hohengarten put the expense of jailing over 650 mentally are ill residents at $23 million over a three-year period, not including arrest and court costs, implying that much of that could be avoided with systematic changes.


Public Safety Commissioner Ramey Ko set those figures against the expense of constructing affordable housing units. “We’re talking about something pretty cheap,” he said.


Ko cited figures provided by Mobile Loaves and Fishes that put the cost of providing permanent supportive housing to roughly 800 of the region’s chronically homeless at “less than $1 million in terms of the actual housing.”


“At the end of the day, it’s about not only caring for people who need it, it’s about reducing the costs and the spill-over effects, and all of the negative consequences that happen to the general community,” Ko said. “(If) we can’t get people in to housing, (if) we can’t provide the support services to make sure that they succeed in housing, then no matter how much good medical care they get, it’s not going to solve the issue.”

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