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homeless people sleeping on the street

City’s homeless services not coordinated

Tuesday, December 12, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Austin lacks a single coordinator to oversee all of its activities and expenditures relating to the homeless to make sure that they are operating efficiently, according to an audit released by the Office of the City Auditor on Monday.

In addition, the city needs to coordinate with outside groups, such as the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, to make sure that neither one misses opportunities to assist people experiencing homelessness, the audit said.

The audit, which the City Council Audit and Finance Committee approved at Monday’s meeting, is the second in a series related to the city’s efforts to effectively provide homelessness assistance services. Last month, auditors released an audit showing that some city regulations make problems of the homeless harder to address and make them subject to arrest.

Interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley told the committee that city employees are attempting to find out exactly how much money the city is spending to combat homelessness, but that it is close to $30 million a year.

In response to the audit, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Mayor Steve Adler noted that it is important for the city and the nonprofit agencies providing services to the homeless to have one coordinated plan. Tovo noted that ECHO is working on such a plan and would be making a presentation to Council in early February.

Hensley said the plan that ECHO is developing is a good one and her team is attempting to find out exactly how much money the city is spending on the effort, how the money is allocated, who is being served and the nonprofits involved. It will then provide Council with an opportunity to make decisions based on that information.

Audit Manager Andrew Keegan told the committee that a number of other cities have designated a person or group within the city to make sure that efforts are coordinated between departments as well as with nonprofits dealing with the issue.

Keegan said Interim City Manager Elaine Hart recently established a multidepartment team to improve coordination of services for the homeless. However, every member of the team is working on that effort in addition to their other duties. Hensley is currently leading that team effort.

Hensley “has recently borrowed a staff member to assist with the work related to the Homelessness efforts. However, this person is also working with (her) on the Graffiti Initiatives as well. The overall strategy will be to request a full time position through the 2018-19” budget process for a person to have primary responsibility of coordinating homeless efforts, according to management’s response to the audit.

Hensley said that “the ECHO plan is a great plan,” but that from a city standpoint there was no coordinated effort, which departments did not realize until they sat down together as a team. And the same is true for the nonprofits and the faith community, she said, with different agencies being unaware of what others are doing.

In addition to the departments obviously involved with efforts related to homelessness, such as police, public health and emergency medical services, there are a number of less obvious departments that deal with homelessness and associated community problems, according to the audit.

Austin Resource Recovery has a program to power-wash downtown streets and alleys, particularly around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Keegan said. The department only recently became aware that the water, which contains trash and other debris, was being washed into Waller Creek. “They’re now working with Watershed Protection to recapture that water,” he said.

Hensley said she wasn’t sure that the city would need a full-time coordinator but that there were many aspects of the issue that might benefit from one. For example, she said she had “no idea” of what the Watershed Protection Department was dealing with related to homelessness.

Tovo said, “It may be that it’s exactly the right thing to have a coordinator. … My main interest is to make sure that we are not reinventing wheels, not duplicating services, and that we’re not drafting a plan from the bottom up,” when there is already a plan involving the same people who are participating.

City Auditor Corrie Stokes said her office was not necessarily recommending creating a new position to coordinate the effort but “that somebody be designated with primary responsibility for this, because it seems like a very big job and is currently being done by people who don’t necessarily have the capacity without going above and beyond for that level of effort.”

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Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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