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person sleeping on street

Public Safety Commission calls for refined counting measures of city’s homeless population

Wednesday, May 3, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

Andy Hofmeister, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services division chief, addressed the Public Safety Commission at its May 1 meeting. Hofmeister answered questions of concern regarding the city’s growing homeless population.

According to Hofmeister, there were roughly 2,200 homeless individuals in Austin in 2016, an increase of 400 individuals from the 1,800 people reported in 2015. The data, Hofmeister said, was taken from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a nonprofit in Austin that works to end homelessness in the city.

The growth, he said, could be attributed to a number of reasons.

“We aren’t exactly sure whether ECHO happened to come across more individuals or (if ECHO) had more volunteers to canvas areas,” Hofmeister said. “It could also just be that there are more individuals living on the street.”

Commissioner Ed Scruggs felt similarly and wondered whether Austin truly had seen “explosive growth” within the homeless population, or if ECHO had simply refined the way the population was being counted.

Another statistic focused on where homeless individuals are coming from. Hofmeister said most individuals – upwards of 75 percent – were reported to have first experienced homelessness here in Austin or in the immediate area.

For Commissioner Kim Rossmo, though, that “75 to 80 percent” statistic seemed misleading.

“If they came (to Austin) and were living here for 10 years and then circumstances led to them became homeless, that (statistic) might be relevant,” he explained. But if an individual arrived and started living on the streets within a short period of time later, Rossmo said they would not be counted as having started their problems elsewhere.

Rossmo also said homelessness is a public safety concern and the main issue at hand is the lack of worry or interest in analyzing the growth of those numbers.

“We’re seeing a pattern of pretty dramatic growth in the homeless population in the city of Austin, and as far as I’m concerned,” said Rossmo, “with no real idea of where they’re coming from or why these numbers are going up so dramatically.”

He said if the city wants to solve the homelessness problem, it must have an understanding of what the problem is, the extent and the history – information Rossmo said he didn’t think the city had.

To address those concerns, Chair Rebecca Webber cited an email she received from the Office of the City Auditor. Webber said, per the email, that the office is conducting an audit related to homelessness in Austin.

“They’ve asked us to weigh in on how they can best meet their goal.” That goal, Webber said, is to evaluate the outcomes of the city’s efforts to address the needs of the city’s homeless population.

Webber suggested that the questions Rossmo raised relating to place of origin should be presented to the auditor’s office as part of that report.

Rossmo’s concerns didn’t end there. He questioned whether homelessness was a city or state issue, saying if homeless individuals are arriving from other areas outside of Austin, the city should be having discussions with the state. Rossmo said it would be unfair to expect taxpayers to pay for a statewide problem.

“There’s only so much money to go around,” Rossmo said, “and we need to be smart about this.”

Commissioner Daniela Nunez expressed similar desires to seek funding from other outlets, but said she wasn’t confident in the state’s ability to offer compassion towards people in the situation at hand.

Despite disagreements, though, various commission members agreed that for budget and public safety services, the city would benefit from refining the issue of how the city counts its homeless population.

The commission is expected to hear from ECHO at next month’s meeting.

Photo by Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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