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Austin Police tout results of homelessness engagement program

Thursday, April 6, 2017 by Jack Craver

As part of a new initiative to combat homelessness, a small group of cops, mental health specialists and medical personnel have been taking to the streets to engage directly with Austin’s homeless.

The Homeless Outreach Street Team has had a big impact on the lives of many of the city’s homeless population since it began operations in June, Austin Police Commander Justin Newsom told the Public Safety Commission on Monday.

Newsom reported that the team, which consists of two police officers, three integral care behavioral specialists, one community court case manager and at least one paramedic, secured permanent shelter for 95 people over the past nine months.

In its annual point-in-time census of the homeless population last year, the Ending Community Homeless Coalition counted roughly 2,197 people who lacked permanent housing. The majority – 1,382 – were sheltered, while the remaining 815 were on the streets.

Getting people off the streets and into housing is the end goal of such efforts, but there are plenty of other benefits that the homeless population and the broader community derive from other types of assistance that HOST delivers. Newsom claimed the team is responsible for preventing 25 trips to the emergency room, 20 jailings and 13 commitments to a psychiatric hospital that would have occurred in the absence of a team specialized in dealing with mental illness and addiction.

Newsom also recounted a story of a HOST officer talking with a homeless man and noticing a wound on the man’s foot. The man had avoided going to the hospital, saying he didn’t want to get hit with a bill. The paramedic on the scene assessed the wound and persuaded the man to go to the emergency room, where a doctor found blood clots that could have easily cost him his life if they had remained untreated.

“Without that organized, proactive help on the streets, this gentleman likely would have been dead now,” said Newsom.

The program is still in an experimental stage, with Newsom saying in response to questions from Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales that there are no quantifiable goals set.

Commissioner Kim Rossmo said that he would like the city to figure out what percentage of its homeless population is homegrown, compared to recent arrivals. If it turns out that a lot of homeless people are coming here from other places where they don’t have access to services, then the city needs to begin demanding help from the state and federal government, he said.

The presentation on HOST came just after Joell Sullivan-McNew, the founder of SafeHorns, a group formed in the wake of the murder of a UT student last year, urged the city to do more to address crime in the West Campus area, much of which she attributed to the homeless population.

Asked how common violent behavior was among the homeless, Newsom said that homeless people rarely attack the nonhomeless. Most of the victims are homeless themselves, he said. Generally, he added, the police notice more aggressive behavior from the homeless population concentrated in the campus area – which tends to be younger – than from the downtown population.

HOST, cautioned Newsom, “is not a panacea.”

“There is a portion of the homeless population that does not want intervention from these teams,” he explained.

Members of the commission reacted favorably to the concept as well as its reported performance.

“I’d be willing to bet you,” said Commissioner Preston Tyree, “this is a good investment.”

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

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