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Council sets differing expectations for homeless strategy officer

Thursday, September 5, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

While Lori Pampilo Harris, the city’s newly hired homeless strategy officer, packs her things and prepares for her journey from Orlando to Austin, City Council is making big plans for her first day on the job.

The first order of business, if Mayor Steve Adler has his wish, is for Harris to review the city’s proposed budget for solving the homelessness crisis on her first day, Monday, Sept. 9, and provide Council with any useful feedback that could inform its decision the next day, Sept. 10, when Council is scheduled to adopt the budget.

Following that initial feedback, Adler said during Wednesday’s budget meeting, he expects additional general advice on the city’s proposed budget and homelessness programs.

However, reminding everyone that Council members are, “at the end of the day, the policymakers,” Council Member Kathie Tovo expressed her “very strong concerns” with the idea that Harris would have the influence to disrupt programs that have already been thoroughly discussed and approved.

Reading through a list of programs and efforts included in next year’s $62.7 million budget for homelessness, Tovo emphasized the extensive community and city involvement that has contributed to budget commitments like improvements to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, $2.3 million in resources for the Homeless Outreach Street Team, and emergency and temporary shelters.

“I don’t think these are things that we want to hesitate on,” Tovo said. “We made allocations in last year’s budget cycle that took, maybe, nine months to actually get that funding into the program, and so any delays in some of this funding, in some respects, is unconscionable.”

Highlighting the importance of creating “community-specific” solutions, Council Member Ann Kitchen also pushed back against the idea that Harris’ advice will be of significant help upon her arrival. When considering Harris’ proposals for addressing homelessness, Kitchen said, it will important to know that she has conducted an analysis of Austin’s situation.

“I don’t know how we could expect a homeless strategy officer to hit the ground, review our budget, understand what’s going on in our community, talk to all of our service providers, (or) really understand what’s actually happening as opposed to what is said is happening, in a month,” she said. “To my mind that is not a realistic expectation for her.”

Rather than expecting an in-depth analysis, Adler said his top priority is simply to hear Harris’ input prior to and following adoption of the budget.

“I can’t tell from the data where the need is within the system of our homelessness infrastructure,” he said. “I get differing assessments of that based on conversations with different stakeholders in the city and I’m really looking forward to having somebody that doesn’t come from those stakeholder groups, that comes with a kind of independent eye and says, this is what we should do.”

With the ongoing urgency of the homelessness crisis, Council Member Alison Alter kicked off the conversation around Harris’ position by posing the question of whether money from the city’s Housing Trust Fund or Pay for Success program could be reallocated to solve more pressing homelessness issues.

For example, by taking $1 million each from the Housing Trust Fund and the Pay for Success pre-funding allocation, Alter said Harris could have some extra flexibility to help the city solve homelessness issues in the short term. If that money isn’t used, she said, it could go back where it came from.

Alter said that pot of money would not come at the expense of either the Housing Trust Fund or Pay for Success. Instead, she said, it would only require some maneuvering of city funds.

The Housing Trust Fund, Alter said, currently has $14 million, twice the amount it should have based on the city’s investment policy. Without knowing the exact number that should be reallocated, she suggested $1 million of the extra $7 million could be an appropriate figure.

Council Member Greg Casar said Harris herself could consider whether or not it makes more sense to pre-fund Pay for Success five years in advance or to use that money for more immediate needs.

“The heart of what we’re bringing up,” Casar said, is the need to give Harris the freedom to offer guidance to address the crisis. “If she can’t help us coordinate things better and do things better, then I don’t know what we’re having her come here to do.”

One thing she should definitely not do, Kitchen said, is further complicate the city’s homelessness strategies at this critical moment.

“I do not want to set up the expectation that we’re not going to move forward on things because we’re waiting for her to do something and we’re not giving her a realistic amount of time to do it,” she said. “We’re talking about this being an emergency in our community; we just can’t afford to slow it down.”

Photo by Jim Nix made available through a Creative Commons license.

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