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homeless people sleeping on the street

Homelessness action report calls for doubling spending

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 by Jack Craver

If Austin wants to get serious about ending homelessness, it needs to spend about twice as much on the variety of programs that currently serve the more than 2,000 people living on the streets.

That’s according to an action plan endorsed by the Membership Council of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, which is chaired by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

“We’ve got to scale up a lot of things,” said ECHO Executive Director Ann Howard in a presentation to City Council members last Tuesday.

The total public and private investment in homelessness services currently amounts to just over $30 million a year. According to the action plan, another $30 million is required, whether it comes from the city, nonprofits, private donors or businesses.

The goal of the action plan is to build on the city’s successful efforts to eliminate homelessness among veterans. In 2016, Mayor Steve Adler and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro declared that veteran homelessness in Austin had been effectively eliminated as a result of a collaboration among the city, nonprofits and private property owners willing to offer housing to homeless vets.

Landlords are reluctant to offer housing to tenants with spotty housing and income histories, but the veterans pilot program showed that many are willing to take the risk if offered certain assurances. In this case, private money raised by Adler was used to set up a risk mitigation fund for property owners who agreed to set aside units for homeless vets. The fund would cover the rent if the tenant left or failed to pay.

That money raised by Adler, along with city funds, has also been used to provide discounted rents to tenants: Tenants pay what they can afford, and the city pays the rest.

The current system of housing services is overwhelmed, explained Howard at the meeting. There simply aren’t enough beds, caseworkers, mental health specialists or the myriad other resources that go into addressing homelessness.

“It’s not about draining a swamp but about unclogging the drain,” she said.

To illustrate the point, Howard’s presentation featured a graphic of an overflowing bathtub. The number of people “flowing in” to the system due to homelessness is currently far greater than those “flowing out” of the system and into permanent housing, she said.

In a subsequent interview with the Austin Monitor, Howard said that while there will always be people who experience homelessness, the “idea is that the outflow could equal the inflow.” While there is no city that has come up with the ultimate fix to homelessness, she said, there are some that do it much better than others.

Surveys of the homeless population by ECHO revealed a population that is troubled by far more than poverty. Sixty-two percent have experienced trauma or abuse, 44 percent say they currently are dealing with mental health issues, 43 percent say they’ve been attacked while homeless, 29 percent have experienced domestic abuse and 36 percent have ongoing legal issues that could result in fines or jail.

Of course, lack of money is a big problem too: 60 percent report no income.

The great majority (82 percent) of the 2,590 homeless households in the city consists of single people, for whom a studio apartment would be sufficient. Five percent are households of two to three people, who need a one- or two-bedroom unit. Thirteen percent are larger households of four or more individuals, who need at least three bedrooms.

The action plan calls for an increase in both “low-barrier shelters,” which can immediately provide temporary housing for people, and permanent low-rent housing. It also suggests increasing mobile outreach to people living on the streets to help direct them to services and housing.

The plan also calls for better coordination among various social service providers that interact with the homeless population, including health care providers, substance abuse treatment centers and housing providers. It’s not unusual, said Howard, for the homeless to be discharged from hospitals onto the streets, carrying IV bags or on crutches.

The costs of having a large population of homeless people are far greater than those of tackling the problem, said Howard.

“Let’s spend money to end it,” she said, “not manage it.”

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