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Council passes HEAL resolution to connect homeless to housing, address camping

Friday, February 5, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Those experiencing homelessness and camping in four areas around Austin may soon find permanent homes.

By passing the Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link resolution (HEAL) on Thursday, City Council set in motion a plan to move people from places that pose risks to their well-being and into housing.

“This is immediate action for our unhoused neighbors who are facing risk to their health and safety every day,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, who sponsored the resolution.

Kitchen cautioned that HEAL “is not a comprehensive strategy for dealing with homelessness,” but “a key strategy as one piece of a puzzle.”

Though the city may ban camping in these places after each resident finds a home, it has pledged not to issue citations or involve police.

“This is not about sweeps,” Kitchen said. “This is about connecting (homeless people) to housing.”

The resolution comes amidst calls for a full-on camping ban in the city. Save Austin Now’s camping ban petition was certified on Thursday, all but ensuring a May ballot measure. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also threatened to ban camping statewide.

Several dozen community members spoke Thursday to criticize the resolution. Few were assuaged by Kitchen’s assurances that the initiative would not use citations or sweeps to move people. One called the plan “half-baked.” Another called it “deplorable.” “It’s a Trojan horse camping ban,” one said. “It’s racist,” said another. Only one person spoke in favor.

“We saw from our earlier testimony,” Kitchen said, “that there were some misunderstandings and some statements that were not accurate about what is in this resolution.”

Some speakers said the city had not asked those experiencing homelessness what is best for them. Kitchen said this will happen during the plan’s implementation. Everyone living in the designated areas will be offered help “based on their expressed needs,” she said, with the goal of finding each of them rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, or housing-focused shelters.

City Manager Spencer Cronk and Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey must develop the plan in conjunction with city departments and community organizations before March 4, when Council will have a chance to comment and make suggestions.

Cronk and Grey have several tough decisions ahead of them: how to objectively choose, based on safety and health, the exact locations for the program’s three phases; how to ban camping without criminalizing it; how to find enough housing for everyone in the chosen sites; and how to fund the program.

The resolution states that the $3 million program must not divert funding from any current or planned homeless services or permanent supportive housing.

Though the HEAL resolution’s passage seemed like a foregone conclusion, Council debated the measure for an hour before voting.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison moved to postpone because of the public comments. “Our community has expressed some significant concern, and I always want to make certain that we take the opportunity to get a consensus, if possible.” Her motion failed, 7-4.

Council Member Greg Casar tried to add amendments to more explicitly say that the program would not criminalize homelessness, and that site selection would be based on objective criteria. Kitchen and her co-sponsors only accepted one amendment and called the rest redundant.

The resolution passed with eight votes. Harper-Madison, Casar and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes voted against the measure. Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Paige Ellis joined the item’s sponsors to vote yes.

According to the resolution, a “collaboration” of city departments and nonprofits will implement the plan, including the Homeless Strategy Office, Austin Public Health, the Housing and Planning Department, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, Integral Care, and other homeless service providers.

Adler hopes that an upcoming citywide homelessness summit will also inform how HEAL is carried out.

“I want to make sure that that work can be brought back to us,” Adler said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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