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City boosts spending on homelessness, but advocates still disappointed

Thursday, September 13, 2018 by Jack Craver

The Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget approved by City Council on Tuesday includes a $3.4 million increase in funding for homelessness services. City staff estimates that the new funds come on top of more than $26 million in annual city spending on programs related to homelessness.

Most of the new money – $2.4 million – was included in the proposed budget submitted by City Manager Spencer Cronk earlier this summer.

$1 million of the staff-recommended increase will fund the expansion of the Homeless Outreach Street Team, an effort that involves police officers, social workers and paramedics working together to connect homeless people with services, treatment and, ideally, housing.

Another $493,000 will fund five new city positions dealing with homelessness. Three of those employees will be coordinators tasked with getting all city departments that interact with homeless individuals – from the Parks and Recreation Department to the Watershed Protection Department – to work proactively and collaboratively on the issue. Two of the new employees will work at the Central Library as points of contact for homeless people to get connected with services.

$600,000 is going into an effort aimed at offering homeless people opportunities to make money in other ways than panhandling. Another $300,000 will fund the cleanup of homeless encampments in creek beds, under bridges, or other places where garbage and human waste present a public health risk.

On Tuesday, some Council members pushed for adding even more money to the budget to address homelessness.

An amendment offered by Council Member Ann Kitchen proposed adding $3 million to bolster a variety of existing services, including rapid rehousing for those who have just become homeless, eviction prevention, new caseworkers to do outreach to homeless people outside of the urban core, and new security measures at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Seventh Street. Over $1 million would go toward the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team run by Integral Care, a 24/7 effort in collaboration with police and emergency medical services to deal with people in mental health crises, oftentimes on the street.

“This Council identified homelessness as the No. 1 strategic priority,” said Kitchen in advocating for the increased funding. “I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is to our entire city from a public health perspective.”

Council Member Greg Casar said that the additional $3 million would address a critical city need and amount to only cents more per month for the average Austin property taxpayer.

However, determination from the rest of Council to keep the tax rate low doomed the measure, which fell one vote shy of the necessary majority. Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Leslie Pool joined Casar and Kitchen in support.

Council Member Delia Garza was unhappy to cast votes against what she viewed as justified spending but said that she was determined to hold the line on the tax rate. A major proponent of the $250 million affordable housing bond on the ballot this year (part of a larger $925 million bond), Garza said that Council had to demonstrate fiscal restraint before asking voters to approve that type of spending.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that it was up to Council having to make tough choices.

“It’s very easy to make everything sound important,” he said. “It’s also very easy to make everything sound emotional.”

Ultimately, Council voted for a more modest boost in funding. An amendment offered by Council Member Alison Alter later in the day included $1 million for homelessness services. The amendment does not specify what types of services; Council will decide how to allocate that money later.

Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), said she was both encouraged by the effort displayed by Council members who pushed for greater spending and disappointed that the effort fell short.

Howard said that the difficulty of getting substantial investment from the city even in times of relative prosperity suggests that advocates need to explore other funding sources, such as through tax increment financing, where a certain portion of new property tax revenue generated by new property value is earmarked for homelessness services, or public improvement districts, where hotels or other businesses agree to pay a certain tax to deal with an issue that they view as relevant to their business.

Spending big on homelessness, said Howard, will ultimately save public agencies money in terms of law enforcement, corrections and health care costs.

“It’s not cheap,” Howard said of programs to get people off the streets. “But it’s so much more cost-effective than keeping them homeless.”

Photo by Dustin Ground made available through a Creative Commons license.

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