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Homelessness in D4 spurs residents looking to marshal housing resources

Monday, February 27, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Residents in the North Austin area focused in District 4 are looking to assemble a network of local service groups and government resources to respond to what’s believed to be an increase in the homeless population there.

There’s no official count for the number of individuals with no permanent residence in the district, but anecdotal evidence and growing concern from various neighborhood groups has sparked the effort that is being led by a loose group known as the D4 Homelessness Initiative.

The group held a community forum on Feb. 22 at Lanier High School that gathered neighbors, local officials and representatives of assorted homelessness service organizations to discuss the issue and begin work on spinning up the resources needed to help those living in wooded areas near area creeks.

Sara Petit-McClure, one of the organizers of the group, said neighbors began discussing the local homelessness issue in an organized way last April after noticing an increase in homeless encampments in Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park and other wooded areas. Rather than calling police and creating a musical chairs cycle of arresting and releasing homeless individuals, they talked about trying to connect service organizations with those in need in an area of the city where the homelessness issue hasn’t been widely addressed.

“We didn’t want our meetings to be neighbors with pitchforks, and we knew we needed to change messaging around (the) homeless in our community,” she said. “It was a group of neighbors that wanted to learn why it’s happening in such high numbers. What we learned are there’s a million different reasons.”

Data from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition found that in 2016 there were 2,138 homeless individuals in Austin. The group’s 2017 “point-in-time” data is due within the month.

ECHO also found that just over 7,000 people utilized services for the homeless in 2016, a 14 percent increase from 2015. They also found that the $101,000 per-person public cost of homelessness could be cut by more than 50 percent if homeless individuals were provided housing and basic medical care, rather than cycling through jail and emergency rooms.

Organizations such as Caritas of Austin, Foundation Communities, ECHO and Front Steps are already in talks with Petit-McClure’s group. She said data from this month’s meeting will be compiled over the next month and that another meeting by April will see the group expand its membership and identify one short-term and one long-term priority to begin addressing.

“We’re aware of what exists and what some of the challenges are to addressing those issues,” she said. “Next is picking one or two areas to focus on, and that will be determined by where people’s interests are. One part could be on the policy side and another could be shorter on getting help right now where we can.”

District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar said the residents’ comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness in their community could serve as an example to other groups throughout the city, especially as development in the city core causes those communities to move farther north and south.

“My primary input is to help these neighbors organize themselves,” he said after attending and helping to lead the forum. “We get calls from neighbors wanting to address the issue. (The) majority want an ethical solution but don’t know how to get there. What’s good here is there’s intention to do a micro level response and also a look at how do we do macro level policy work.”

Photo of the District 4 forum by Shelby Alexander

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