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Travis County to create cohesive homelessness outreach plan

Wednesday, October 14, 2020 by Savana Dunning

The Travis County Commissioners Court has created a new temporary project worker position tasked with developing a cohesive homeless outreach plan for the county, following a separate request by a county constable.

In March, the Commissioners Court approved a census outreach worker, officially a temporary court clerk position, under Precinct 3 Constable Stacy Suits to help increase census participation among Austin’s homeless population. Suits has worked to increase homeless connection to community resources since 2017, when he created the Constable Outreach Program through Deputy Drew McAngus. The program receives no funding from the county and Suits’ original requests for the court to establish a permanent homeless community liaison position in the constable’s office have been rejected year after year, including as a part of the most recent budget discussions.

With the temporary census worker position ending in November, Suits came back to the court on Oct. 13 to request that the county reclassify the position as a permanent community liaison.

“Having a person, boots on the ground, providing services to this population and helping coordinate services between government agencies, religious organizations and nonprofits is an invaluable asset to our office,” Suits said at the meeting.

Alex Braden, a senior budget analyst for the county, explained that the new position was not recommended by the Planning and Budget Office because the role “was not germane to the constable’s mandated functions.”

“In light of revenue constraints, we believe the county should be cautious of investing in areas which aren’t mandated,” Braden said. “Approval of this position could be seen as an invitation for other county offices to request additional resources for non-mandated functions.”

Commissioners Gerald Daugherty and Brigid Shea echoed similar concerns over the creation of the position as it relates to the constable’s office, with Daugherty saying it would expand the constable’s role beyond what it’s meant to be.

In a later interview with the Austin Monitor, Suits contended that the constable’s position is much like a sheriff’s, and that his duty extends to homeless outreach and prevention. He said law enforcement should work alongside mental health and social services professionals to aid the homeless population.

“Bottom line is Travis County is responsible for indigents, period, by state law,” Suits said. “I see this as community policing and humanitarian aid and I think that’s well within the scope of what we can do as law enforcement.”

Daugherty motioned to deny the request, which failed without a second. Shea made a separate motion to create a new temporary special project worker position that would lead the development of a coordinated homelessness plan alongside the Justice Planning Department.

“That came from the Planning and Budget staff recommendation,” Shea told the Monitor. “They said there should be a comprehensive approach to dealing with homelessness in Travis County and I just thought that made a great deal of sense, and it also puts lane markers on this position to where we are not granting the constable’s office the permission to go outside the boundary of the constitutional confines of his job.”

The motion was seconded by Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who requested a data collection component to the plan, noting that while the work out in the field is important, the data collected could inform policy going forward.

The motion passed in a four-to-one vote, with commissioners Shea, Travillion, Margaret Gómez and County Judge Sam Briscoe for and Daugherty against.

Although the new position was not what he had originally envisioned, Suits said the change does not alter his plans going forward, which is for census outreach worker Julie Ann Nitsch to fulfill the new role as well as continue the constable’s boots-on-the-ground outreach efforts.

“We need to be doing something rather than doing nothing and planning on doing something in the future,” Suits said.

The county expects the plan to be finished and presented to the Commissioners Court in September 2021.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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