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Council floats spending ‘huge’ portion of American Rescue Plan funds to solve homelessness

Wednesday, March 24, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council hopes that solving homelessness – the city’s biggest priority – may finally be within reach thanks to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Council members spoke effusively at Tuesday’s work session about the “transformational” change possible if the city concentrates its portion of the American Rescue Plan – $195.8 million – on solving key issues instead of spreading the money thin.

This is the chance, Mayor Steve Adler said, to “take one of our most significant challenges and just fix it.”

Council is set this week to adopt a resolution, dubbed Resilient ATX, which they say is a first step toward allocating the funds. Staffers will be tasked with creating a detailed spending plan based in part on the resolution.

Though the resolution doesn’t prioritize all the issues that could be addressed using the funds, it does single out homelessness as the most pressing. At the work session, the mayor and others seemed optimistic about the opportunity the American Rescue Plan presents for solving homelessness.

“What would happen if we were able to actually put the resources necessary to effect the five-year plan to end homelessness in our community,” Mayor Steve Adler said, “and to begin to move all of the people in campsites … into permanent supportive housing?”

Adler and several Council members also insisted that artists, musicians and music venues should also receive a large portion of the funds.

“These are things we’ve been dreaming about for a long time,” said Council Member Alison Alter.

Though the rescue plan stipulates that the money be used “to respond to the Covid-19 public health emergency or its negative economic impacts,” as Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said, the city will likely have leeway to spend the money as it pleases. “That’s very broad language,” he noted.

Even so, Austin must wait for the U.S. Treasury to release detailed spending guidelines before evaluating spending proposals. “The devil will be in the details in regards to how creative we can be in using those funds,” Van Eenoo said.

All the money must also be spent by the end of 2024. The city plans to allocate much of the funds to departments and programs this fiscal year, doling out the rest by the end of Fiscal Year 2022.

The city’s ability to enact such change also depends in large part on how Travis County spends the $247.1 million it received – a far greater amount than expected.

Adler suggested that a big chunk of the more than $400 million available to the two bodies should be spent on homelessness. “What if we put a huge component of our dollars toward that?” he said. “Maybe it’s $200 million or $250 million, or whatever it is.” Then the city and the county, he said, could court big donors in the community by saying, “Government is willing to put a real significant sum against this challenge, will you meet us on a similar scale?”

“Our goal is to take this challenge,” Adler said, “and fix it, or resolve it, or provide for it in ways that we’ve never had a chance to before and may never have a chance to again.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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