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Austin’s homeless population still growing

Thursday, February 28, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Despite the expenditure of millions of city and federal dollars, and the fact that Austin’s efforts are frequently cited as best practices in other cities, homelessness is still on the rise here.

Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that she does not yet have the final count of people experiencing homelessness in 2019. However, she said she expects the number to be about 100 more than 2,147 – last year’s total, which was a 5 percent increase from the 2017 count.

Howard believes the reason for the increase is not related to the fact that more people are moving to Austin, but because “crisis happens and housing is expensive.” She added, “What creates homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.”

Howard was one of a number of representatives of homeless advocacy organizations who attended Wednesday’s meeting of the Council Audit & Finance Committee to discuss the results of a special report from the city auditor’s office. The report was the culmination of a project started in 2017 to analyze the city’s response to homelessness and how well service providers are doing in meeting their performance goals.

Auditors found that homelessness service providers frequently failed to meet contract performance goals and that Austin Public Health sometimes changed goals in response to requests from the service providers. That was no surprise to the service providers or the health department, the main city department overseeing homeless social service agreements. Those changes are sometimes in response to changing federal requirements for the service providers and sometimes as a result of new information.

“Although city code requires that the City Council approve some contract amendments related to funding, there does not appear to be a similar requirement for amending performance goals,” the audit reads. “As a result, City Council and the public may not be aware that contract goals have changed. Austin Public Health management asserts that reasons for amending performance goals must be documented in the department’s contract management system, although this requirement was not in place during the period reviewed.”

Council Member Alison Alter, the chair of the committee, said it was clear that some of the changes in performance goals came as a result of efforts to make the programs more effective and to target those at highest risk, “which is exactly what was highlighted in the audit. It however raised a broader issue for me. Certain contract amendments come back to us for a vote, but we never see performance measures.” She said she was not suggesting Council should vote on performance measures, but she did ask Deputy City Manager Elaine Hart to look into how to report to Council when performance goals for contracts are changed. Hart agreed to do that.

After the meeting, Alter told the Monitor, “I think we have a heightened awareness on Council that homelessness is a serious problem in our community that we need to address, and all four of the audits point to things we should be doing.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen added that the audit reports are “very useful because they help highlight areas where we need to focus our resources. So, for example, one of the things that stood out to me is something we’ve known all along – that is the need for as accurate as possible data collection.” She said the city’s strategic plan should help with that issue.

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

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