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Public Safety Commission hears update on Austin’s homeless

Tuesday, August 8, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Representatives from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) and the Austin Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) briefed the Public Safety Commission Monday night on the state of the city’s homeless population.

“I think in Austin we know what we need to do,” said Ann Howard, executive director of ECHO, “but we need to do a lot more of it as fast as we can. And it’s limited by resources.”

A little more than two years ago, Howard said, the organization began assessing each person they came across so that – instead of just counting them – the group could find out what each individual client needed to get into stable housing.

Currently, 2,036 Austinites are experiencing homelessness. Around 800 of those are unsheltered, living in cars, tents or parks, under bridges or on the streets. Another 800 live in shelters and other safe havens around the city, which usually force them to leave early in the morning. Nearly 400 people are living in transitional housing.

Commissioner Kim Rossmo said he has heard from Austin Police Department officers that there are an increasing number of homeless people in the area who are from other cities. He asked if there was data to back that up, and said it could mean the city seeking financial help from the state in dealing with the issues.

Howard said the group started asking clients where they are from in 2013. “By and large, the majority of the people that we’re dealing with in Austin-Travis County are from Austin-Travis County,” she said.

Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth spend more money on their homeless populations than Austin does, Howard said, and receive more money from the federal government. “They’re bigger, they’ve been doing it longer,” she explained. “People do choose to migrate – that’s true. It’s not like we have a real robust service provision so everybody’s coming here. Everybody who’s here who needs help is waiting for help.”

But it’s unclear whether a key cog in the coalition, APD’s Homeless Outreach Street Team, will continue to grow. Under the proposed budget the city manager sent to City Council, there’s no increase to the team’s funding. Assistant Chief Troy Gay told commissioners that the department would continue internal talks with the city manager to decide if they will continue with the pilot in its current form.

“I think we are committed to the HOST team,” he said. “It’s just that we are in discussions right now to potentially make it permanent with funding. But if the funding does not come forth, I believe that our department is still committed to move toward the HOST.”

Howard cautioned commissioners that, while APD has funding constraints, the city should also prioritize funding the housing the homeless sorely need. “With all due respect to the budget for law enforcement, the answer to ending homelessness is housing and the services needed to keep folks in housing.”

Photo by Donnie Boyd made available under a Creative Commons license.

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