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Council expands pilot program providing employment for homeless

Friday, October 4, 2019 by Katherine Corley

On Thursday City Council authorized $720,000 from the city budget to fund an additional year of the growing Workforce First program, which offers temporary work opportunities and supportive services to individuals experiencing homelessness. The money will be drawn from the operating budgets of Austin Resource Recovery, Austin Public Health, Parks and Recreation, and the Watershed Protection departments, all of which allocated funds in the recently passed Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget for this purpose.

This past year, the 13-month Workforce First pilot program, consisting of one work crew, provided cleanup services for parks around South Austin. Having exceeded its initial goals, Workforce First will now expand to three work crews and will deploy cleanup crews in North Austin as well.

According to a city press release, Family Eldercare serves as the administrative and fiscal agent of Workforce First, subcontracting with The Other Ones Foundation to provide outreach, employment opportunities and supportive services to people experiencing homelessness. The city funds the program through an agreement with Family Eldercare. Workforce First pays its workers $15 per hour in cash daily, and also provides employees with job training, connection to banking and social services, and assistance addressing obstacles to finding employment. Workforce First has already placed 22 people in permanent housing.

“I’m really pleased that we’re expanding it; it’s transformational,” Council Member Leslie Pool said of the program. “I think we can all agree that the program represents a solution based on holistic work that we as a community need to do on the homelessness issue.”

The program expansion comes one day after Gov. Greg Abbott sent a strongly worded letter to Mayor Steve Adler in which Abbott threatened to direct “every available state agency to act to fulfill my responsibility to protect the health and safety of Texans in your jurisdiction” if Adler does not demonstrate “consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis” by Nov. 1. Abbott did not define what “consequential improvement” would entail.

Adler asked Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health, whether it would be possible to expand the scope of the program to include cleaning under overpasses as well as parks. Hayden replied that over the next six months they would be coordinating with other city programs that also conduct cleanup services to discuss expansion options.

Interested in expediting the process, Adler asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to compile information about all city programs engaging in cleanup services within the next week or two.

The Texas Department of Transportation previously had the job of cleaning out vegetation under Austin’s overpasses, but stopped providing these services to the city in February due to the increasing amounts of trash and debris under the overpasses from a number of homeless encampments.

“As part of our conversation with the state, we’ll request that the state pay Austin what it was costing them to clean under our overpasses,” Adler said. “I don’t think they were trying to get a cost savings by not cleaning under the overpasses in our city, it was just work they didn’t want to do.”

Responding directly to Abbott’s Oct. 2 letter, Council Member Pool also referenced Austin’s give-and-take relationship with the state. “I’m glad the governor’s noticing that we have these challenges in Austin,” Pool said. “I asked him (Abbott), please just step up to the plate and bring some action in the form of financial support for the work that we are laboring to do for all of our residents to keep them all healthy and safe, which is also the state of Texas’ responsibility.”

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