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Downtown Austin Alliance targets homelessness

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Downtown Austin Alliance has launched a new pilot program aimed at tackling the glaring problem of chronic homelessness in Central Austin.

The Homeless Outreach Street Team, or HOST program, hit the streets on June 1. Its small roster is made up of representatives from the DAA, the Austin Police Department, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services and Austin Travis County Integral Care.

“It’s a new collaborative approach to proactively address the needs of people living on the streets downtown, to get them moved to a positive direction before they come into crisis,” Bill Brice of the DAA told the Austin Monitor on Friday.

Brice said that the team of two officers, one paramedic, two behavioral health specialists and one social service worker will work to divert homeless residents from jail or emergency rooms. He said the DAA has been developing the HOST program for several months and looked to Houston’s own Homeless Outreach Team, which was established in 2011, as the inspiration.

The effort’s geographic scope covers everything north of Lady Bird Lake, south of 29th Street, east of N. Lamar Boulevard and west of Interstate 35.

The launch of the HOST program comes in the same year that one prominent advocacy group found a disturbing increase in Austin’s homeless population. In its annual count, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition found 2,197 people living on Austin streets or in shelters. That was up from 1,832 the year before. The finding also reversed three years of consecutive declines in Austin’s homeless population.

At a DAA-sponsored forum on safety in April — convened just days after the murder of a student on the University of Texas campus, allegedly by a homeless teenager — several residents and business owners spoke of relocating the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless from its downtown location at E. Seventh and Trinity streets.

On Friday, Brice said that idea would only be a cosmetic fix to a larger systemic problem.

“People that have behavioral health needs, people who may be homeless, they’re going to gravitate back to the urban center because that’s where the critical mass of people are and where they can obtain resources, drugs, money and other things,” he said. “So saying we’re just going to move them out of downtown, I don’t think that’s realistic. Moving them out of that condition is the answer.”

He added that the HOST program and its aim of proactive intervention will provide a key step toward addressing the larger issue. “We know homelessness isn’t something that can be solved by the police. You can’t arrest your way out of it. Housing is the answer to that, but there are a lot of steps between someone living on the street and getting housed,” said Brice.

He explained that 40 people have already received some form of medical intervention since the program launched at the beginning of the month. He added that the general push is for the pilot program, which he said is being funded with “existing resources,” to be formally adopted into the city budget this October.

To that end, the HOST program has at least one powerful ally. Brice said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 includes the area targeted by the initiative, is a strong supporter. Tovo did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Photo by Dustin Ground made available through a Creative Commons license.

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