Tuesday, March 26, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

City names interim homelessness coordinator, with national search coming

The city of Austin has made an interim hire to start addressing the many needs of people experiencing homelessness and strategies to get them into stable housing.

Last week assistant city managers Rodney Gonzales and Christopher Shorter announced that Veronica Briseño will move from her role as director for small and minority business resources to become the interim homeless strategy officer – known colloquially as the homelessness czar. The change took effect Monday, with Edward Campos serving as acting director of the small and minority business program.

Briseño took the interim role after the candidate selected in a recent search for the position opted not to accept the job.

The memo detailing the change notes that the next search for a permanent hire will be conducted by a national search firm, and that the position will be elevated to the executive level so it is more attractive to high-quality candidates.

The hiring has become a priority for city leaders because of what’s seen as a growing number of homeless residents living in unsafe conditions throughout the city. Mayor Steve Adler and other city leaders have said it is important for the city to have a single staff person who can coordinate programs and marshal needed resources that currently exist individually in various departments throughout the city’s bureaucracy.

Today the city and assorted homelessness advocates were expected to announce the results of the annual “point in time” count that estimates how many people in Austin are without a home at any given time. Last month Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, told the Austin Monitor that the count would likely fall somewhere over 2,200 people in need of shelter.

Among the top priorities for Briseño and her permanent successor will be contributing to a plan to create more emergency shelter space. City Council passed a resolution in January calling for a plan by May that would have new shelter space available and operating by September.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said homeless camps proliferating under freeways have made the new shelter space a critical need among many segments of city staff, including Briseño.

“That’s such an urgent need we have, because there tends to be this lag between engaging and working with someone to get them services and getting them into permanent housing,” she said. “During that time they’ll end up living on the streets and nothing gets done while they’re waiting, and it’s really tough for these people to do things like work a steady job when they have no place to live.”

Also figuring into the duties of the new position will be heavy involvement with the operations at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. Earlier this year, the city approved a new contract with Front Steps to manage ARCH, with a change in approach that will bring extensive case management services to the center so that clients seeking shelter can start enrolling in services and programs to find a new home.

Kitchen said she is glad Briseño stepped forward to take on the position temporarily. She noted that the upcoming national search for a permanent hire will need to focus on candidates who can demonstrate an ability to coordinate programs in different departments that have previously operated independently.

“This is the type of position that requires a great deal of imagination and collaboration because there’s lots and lots of departments in the city that deal with the homeless in different aspects,” she said. “Experience working with the homeless would be nice, but you’ve got to be able to work between different programs and be able to think rather far outside the box when you need to.”

Photo by Clay Junell made available through a Creative Commons license.

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