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Audit says city needs better data on homeless population

Thursday, May 24, 2018 by Jack Craver

What does it mean to be homeless? It depends who you ask.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development applies the term to a variety of living situations, including people living in places “not meant for human habitation,” those in emergency shelters or transitional housing, those who are about to leave jail or a health facility without any housing lined up, and those who are “fleeing or attempting to flee” domestic violence.

“HUD says if you’re sleeping in an apartment, you’re not homeless,” said Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, the nonprofit that HUD has designated as the primary homelessness service provider in Austin, during a meeting of the City Council Audit and Finance Committee on Wednesday. “But we know that a lot of young people are couch surfing or doubled up.”

The competing definitions, said Howard, are among the many difficulties that her organization encounters in assessing and addressing the needs of the city’s large homeless population.

Currently, the total annual public and private spending on homelessness services is roughly $30 million. An action report released by ECHO in February recommends doubling the spending, arguing that the spending would more than pay for itself by reducing costs incurred by taxpayers to pay for the myriad public services dealing with those who are living on the streets.

Still, Howard said that Austin is way ahead of the curve when it comes to collecting data on the problem. Every service provider in town participates in the Homeless Management Information System that ECHO operates, she said.

“Here, HUD-funded agencies are required (to participate) AND the City and County require it for homeless and housing related contracts,” she later explained in an email to the Austin Monitor. “Plus some others do it because we have created a strong community coalition working together!!”

Her remarks at the committee meeting pushed back on a report by the Office of the City Auditor that suggests the city was falling short in its assessment and care of the homeless.

The report highlights ECHO’s annual Point in Time count, in which hundreds of volunteers walk around the city counting the number of people experiencing homelessness between 2 a.m. and 9 a.m. The number of people identified is tied to the amount of HUD funding the organization receives.

The auditor’s report, however, suggests that the Point in Time count was not identifying a large portion of the city’s homeless population. For instance, the volunteers are not counting people who are incarcerated or in health facilities. It noted that nearly 7,500 people used homelessness services in Austin last year, compared to the roughly 2,000 identified in the annual count.

Howard said that ECHO does contact the Travis County Jail to ask how many homeless people are in custody and noted that staff at Seton hospitals enter information about homeless patients into the Homeless Information Management System.

The auditors also raised concerns that many homeless people are not receiving a “coordinated assessment” – 50 questions aimed at judging a person’s vulnerability. The higher the person’s vulnerability score, the higher priority they are for services.

According to the report, 42 percent of people who checked in to local shelters last year have not received an assessment. The auditors pointed out that ECHO does not provide assessments at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Seventh Street, the largest gathering place for the city’s homeless.

Howard said that ECHO stopped conducting assessments at the ARCH in an attempt to decentralize services and reach more people throughout the city. Staff members at the ARCH refer clients to nearby facilities, such as the Trinity Center, where they can be assessed.

In addition, said Howard, not everybody is willing to subject themselves to a questionnaire.

“When you see that your buddy did the assessment and nothing happened, why do the assessment?” she said.

The audit also says that the city is falling short of its goals to create housing for the homeless. Just over 200 permanent supportive housing units have been created since a 2014 Council resolution that called for the creation of 400 by the end of 2018, noted the auditors, and the dwindling funds that remain from the $65 million affordable housing bond approved in 2013 suggest that the rest of the units won’t be built without additional money. Furthermore, even if that goal was accomplished, it falls far short of the 700 units that ECHO estimated were needed in 2017.

The audit suggests that the city needs to bolster its support for even simpler services for the homeless, including places to groom or to store belongings.

Its final two recommendations are broad and uncontroversial.

First, it recommends that Interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley, who is leading a homelessness task force composed of the heads of various agencies that regularly interact with homeless people, “work with ECHO and other partners to improve the quality and accuracy of data collected about the homeless population.” Second, it recommends that the director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department “develop and implement strategies to meet the current housing needs of people transitioning out of homelessness.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she was “surprised” by the audit’s finding that data is lacking. She was less surprised, however, by the finding that there is a lack of resources.

Indeed, said Howard, “There’s not enough of anything to address the existing need.”

Photo by Meg Cheng made available through a Creative Commons license.

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