Tuesday, May 7, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Homelessness roundtable calls for coordinated programs to provide relief

With homelessness one of the top concerns for city leaders, the most recent Imagine Austin speaker series brought together a trio of specialists who have spent years looking for ways to help those who lack a permanent home. Among the things they agreed upon was that it takes a combination of programs and efforts from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to make a difference.

Estimates on the number of chronically homeless people in Austin vary from one data set to another, but one recent annual night count put the number at around 2,200 people. The city is currently conducting a search for a so-called homelessness czar to coordinate the many parts of city government that can impact and help improve the homeless situation.

Kerry O’Connor, the city’s chief innovation officer, said small but simple initiatives – such as deploying case managers to local libraries to interact with homeless people – can match up with the growing mental health services capabilities at the Dell Medical School to prevent people from falling into crisis. O’Connor also pointed to groups such as LifeWorks and Back on My Feet that are conducting specialized but helpful programs that can work together as part of a larger patchwork.

“The city is a system and we can come together to put together a sense of vibrancy in our community,” she said. “That won’t be one thing. It’s going to be a bunch of small things that come together to work in concert and collaboration to move the needle on this very complex issue.”

All three speakers agreed that handing all responsibility for the homeless to the criminal justice system is the wrong solution because arrests and jail time tend to worsen the situation.

“In our society we don’t have a very long-term view and when we experience a challenge in our society like what’s happening around the (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless), we’re like, do something immediately,” O’Connor said. “Maybe we arrest them because they’re blocking the right of way, or maybe we enforce an ordinance specifically geared toward cleaning up the streets, but those people get incarcerated and that’s not a mental health facility and incarceration just adds to the risk factors for not getting a house.”

In Houston, a coordinated approach that has prioritized access to permanent housing based on the severity of a person’s medical, mental health and criminal situations has led to a 50 percent decrease in homelessness since 2012, said Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk, chief program officer of the Houston Coalition for the Homeless.

The coordinated entry process has seen Houston’s homeless count plateau at around 4,000 people. Thibaudeau-Graczyk said that has created a need for new partners to step up to create new programs and solutions as they study the effectiveness of existing programs.

“We needed to look at how we were spending dollars and where we were putting them and figure out what we needed to reallocate, the things that were not getting results or were getting results but costing a heck of a lot of money. We shifted those dollars into lower-cost, more effective strategies,” she said. “We also stopped duplicating services and helped people realize they don’t have to be everything to everyone, so that partners could focus on what they’re really good at.”

One of the most successful homelessness relief efforts in the Austin area has been the Community First! Village operated by Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Founder and CEO Alan Graham said the program has worked by prioritizing community and offering a family-like atmosphere. He said that approach should serve as an example for other relief programs, which should surround those with chronic medical problems or other risk factors with relief services in addition to a home.

“You can’t take a chronically homeless crack addict schizophrenic and stick them in an apartment complex in North Austin where nobody on the planet understands who that person is,” he said. “Because if they come out tonight with their pants down and grunt like an elephant, 911 is gonna get called, the police are going to show up, they’re gonna be arrested and incarcerated and they’re going to go to the largest mental health institution in Travis County.”

Graham said the local homeless population could be taken off the street immediately if every faith-based organization in the Austin area decided to help one person or family and take steps to provide for them and keep them in a home.

“We have to stop abdicating this responsibility to city hall and people in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We need city hall, state government and Washington, D.C. … this is not an indictment on government because I love government and the country that we live in, but when it comes to profound human issues it requires a human relational response in partnership with a moneyed response and the policy response that we need to get out of our government.”

Photo by Jack Sanford made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Imagine Austin: The city's comprehensive plan, adopted in June 2012.

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