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City Council approves plan to end homelessness

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 by Sommer Brugal

The rising concern surrounding homelessness and its growing numbers will receive greater attention and resources moving forward, now that City Council unanimously approved a resolution to endorse the city’s Action Plan to End Homelessness at its April 26 meeting.

The action plan is the result of the combined efforts of the city and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). Both parties worked together to develop a plan that indicates key areas of investing to expand the homelessness response system and increase resources within the city. The plan specifically points to the implementation of five components to help reach that goal: outreach services and shelters, addressing disparities within the city, providing housing and support services, strengthening the city’s response system, and building community commitment from both the public and private sectors.

Sarah Hensley, interim assistant city manager, and Kerry O’Connor, chief innovation officer, presented the report’s findings to Council at the meeting.

As of January 2018, the number of individuals who experience homelessness in Austin is up 5 percent. The current number, according to ECHO’s Point in Time Count, is 2,147. But according to O’Connor, the means in which numbers are measured often vary.

“There’s a wide variance when trying to count people experiencing homelessness, depending on the data system that you’re looking at, depending on how homelessness is (being) defined, (and) depending on how that information is being entered into a database,” said O’Connor.

The unique number of homeless individuals entering the Austin Police Department system every year, for example, is 9,986. O’Connor said the wide gap between numbers is reason enough to endorse a survey of metrics that could provide a more accurate number.

According to the report, over $30 million of the citywide budget is allocated for direct services within the community. While this category also includes services like neighborhood housing and community courts, more than $25 million of the allocation is spent on public health services. Though public health services account for the majority of the city’s direct services budget, Hensley said the city still lacks essential amenities, citing the need for almost 900 additional beds to successfully provide places to sleep for the homeless population in Austin.

Rosie Truelove, the director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, spoke directly to those housing needs as she presented the Strategic Housing Blueprint goals. The plan includes the addition of 20,000 new housing units affordable to those earning 30 percent of the median family income and below by 2027.

Despite the plan for future resources and housing, during citizen communication many audience members voiced strong opinions against three city ordinances as they relate to homeless individuals: panhandling, camping and “no sit/no lie.” Norma Herrera is the criminal justice organizer at Grassroots Leadership. She said that before resources could be made available in the future, the city shouldn’t criminalize individuals for simply being poor.

“We can repeal city ordinances that make it a crime to be without a home,” said Herrera. “Please include the repeal of no camping, no sit/no lie, and no soliciting in the city’s Action Plan to End Homelessness.”

Alex Cogan, a criminal justice intern with Grassroots Leadership and a graduate student in social work at the University of Texas at Austin, stated that both the action plan and a city auditor’s report have stated the harmful outcomes of the ordinances. The report shares the results of a team that surveyed more than 80 individuals who dealt with the ordinances and found that for the no sit/no lie ordinance alone, people reported being ticketed up to 50 times. Those individuals, she said, are still homeless.

While the ordinances are supposed to connect people to city services, Cogan said more than 94 percent of individuals surveyed who interacted with police due to the ordinances were not connected to services or resources.

Many residents echoed Herrera and Cogan’s words, saying the ordinances are inhumane, unjust, and simply contribute to the cycle of homelessness.

While the presentation was met with overall praise from Council members, they did have questions following its conclusion. Council Member Alison Alter questioned whether the impact of existing resources had been examined, too.

“Often the conversation surrounding this is on new resources that we need, but I am excited to see how we are deploying existing resources and whether we’re having as much impact as possible with those resources,” said Alter.

In concluding the discussion, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo highlighted the need for a citywide effort to reach an achievable goal of ending homelessness.

“This plan really (helps us) understand how to invest well across the system and how to continue those programs that we know to be effective, and really make sure that we as a community are increasing the level of resources for this.”

The resolution passed unanimously, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair absent.

Photo by Cheryl Coward made available through a Creative Commons license.

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