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City putting high expectations on pending ‘homelessness czar’ position

Monday, February 4, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

By the end of this month, the city is expected to name a new “homelessness czar” – or homeless strategy officer in city hiring speak. The new hire will become the point person to coordinate programs from the city and the nonprofit community aimed at relieving the increasingly distressed situation of the city’s homeless population.

Mayor Steve Adler mentioned the pending hire last week during discussions on the new management contract for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and a resolution directing city staff to find emergency shelter for the growing homeless population living in camps around South Austin. His remarks were the highest-profile talks on the position, which was included in the fiscal 2019 budget and posted as an open position in November with a description that includes coordinating existing relief efforts and developing new short- and long-term strategies.

The city auditor first recommended a czar-like position in late 2017, because in part, different programs and spending measures directed toward homelessness relief were operating independently with no dedicated person charged with evaluating their overall effectiveness.

Still to be determined is where the new hire will fit into the city’s org chart, and what metrics City Council and the city manager will use to gauge how successfully the new position is performing.

Adler told the Austin Monitor that he and other Council members will determine “realistic and objective” measures that could include the total number of homeless individuals moved into housing, how many people are being moved out of the relief system and the results of the city’s annual point-in-time count.

“Because we have so many services being done out there to address the homeless, including a number of them being done outside the city by various nonprofit and service organizations, having someone to coordinate what’s being done is going to be very important,” Adler said. “It’s important to have some sort of prioritization to look at maybe there’s some spending being done here that is effective, but there’s this other thing being done that is really making a difference and should receive even more attention.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who co-sponsored last week’s emergency shelter resolution, said there are a number of funding options, including money generated from the Waller Creek tax increment financing district, that could cover the costs of any new programs recommended by the new homeless strategy officer.

In addition to the growing homeless populations around the city, the issue has become a flash point for music venues on Red River Street, with some in the community pushing the city to erect a wall in front of an alley that has become a hot spot for drug dealing and other quality-of-life issues. That situation is on the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the Music Commission.

Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition in Austin, said the city’s new position could mimic the work done by a similar hire made years ago in Houston, with that person making sure local housing programs, the city’s housing authority and other related departments were communicating and leveraging each other’s work to improve outcomes.

Howard said she hopes the strategy officer will have a seat high up in the city’s decision-making process and focus on directing “every dollar available” toward existing and new programs, rather than becoming a de facto department with multiple full-time salaries.

“We’ve been fortunate in Austin to have Mayor Adler wanting to convene all of us on the efforts to end homelessness,” she said. “In some ways Austin is way ahead of where Houston was … but different departments aren’t working together as well as they could because public housing and public health work well on homelessness, but the rest of the city government is not as engaged.”

Photo by Roger Mommaerts made available through a Creative Commons license.

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