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Study pushes city toward using data, results in plans to address homelessness

Monday, August 3, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city and organizations working to solve homelessness will adopt a more data-heavy approach to achieving the goals of the 2018 Action Plan to End Homelessness. The move to handle contracts for homeless services in a results-focused way is expected to quickly bring about investments in permanent housing from foundations and private businesses.

A recent summary of a study conducted by consultant Barbara Poppe and Associates notes that the city lacks a strong management approach in its efforts to combat homelessness, which negatively impacted decisions on setting priorities from the action plan, securing investments to remedy homelessness and measuring the results of those investments.

As a result of the study, the new Public-Private Partnership Task Force to End Homelessness was formed and is meeting weekly to create a data-driven plan for adding permanent supportive housing and other resources. Member organizations of the task force include the city of Austin and Ending Community Homelessness Coalition as well as the Downtown Austin Alliance, Caritas of Austin, Front Steps, Integral Care, LifeWorks, and the Salvation Army.

Matt Mollica, executive director of ECHO and co-chair of the task force, said one of the existing hurdles to using data for planning around homelessness was that programs from different organizations measured many kinds of data in non-uniform ways, which made it difficult to gauge their effectiveness and coordinate.

He said looking closely at metrics such as programs’ retention rate, tracking exits and where clients go after exiting a program, measuring increases in income through employment or benefits, and overall improvement in quality of life will help task force members improve their programs. The University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs will assist the task force in strengthening its use of data in executing its strategies.

“We know that we’re under-resourced on the federal, state and local level and we’ve seen massive disinvestment in resources to help people experiencing homelessness, so we’re trying to capitalize on the funding we do have available. It’s about helping projects be more impactful,” he said. “It’s about where we are getting the data, and are we using the Homeless Management Information System in the right way? Are we getting the same data so we can look at projects together and determine where there’s strengths and weaknesses? It’s not that data isn’t being collected, it’s that it’s not centralized and there’s an opportunity for creating and implementing data standards for programs that are aligned with best practices.”

The inclusion of groups aligned with the city’s business community and charitable foundations is expected to help spin up donations to add housing.

“They’re very excited about the alignment that’s occurring right now and documenting the shared vision … that’s something they’re very interested in being a part of,” Mollica said.

Among the next steps specified in the summary is “Continuing to undertake a proactive and inclusive approach to public space management with non-punitive policies.” That step could be impacted by a possible November ballot question that seeks to undo the city’s 2019 relaxation of restrictions on camping and occupying public spaces.

Mollica said recriminalizing homelessness would make it more difficult to find those who need help to secure permanent housing and other assistance to stabilize their lives.

“We know that it’s not a strategy and the criminalization of homelessness does not end homelessness … as folks are being pushed more to the fringes of our community through criminalization it makes it harder to engage those folks and that would impact the effectiveness of the strategy for sure.”

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