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Council stresses need for cooperation in forming strategic plan for homelessness

Tuesday, April 6, 2021 by Jo Clifton

After hearing the results of a follow-up audit related to the city’s efforts to help the homeless, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Leslie Pool both stressed the need for other segments of the community to get involved in resolving Austin’s homelessness problem. They made their remarks at last week’s meeting of City Council’s Audit & Finance Committee.

Adler told his colleagues he thought it was important to move forward with data collection efforts by ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition), “to get better data more quickly … to make sure we have outcome metrics and make our contracts performance-based so there’s that measure of accountability.”

“What we need desperately is a strategic plan. We’ve had all kinds of reports in the past that have identified the elements for us, but what has been missing is an implementation plan, a calendar for what we need to do by when in order to meet the challenge, and an associated spending plan so that the community as a whole can figure this out. Obviously, this is not just a city responsibility. We can only do part of it. The county needs to do its part,” along with independent agencies like ECHO and the Housing Authority, he said.

Adler told KVUE Sunday that during a recent summit on homelessness, he met with leaders of the business community, nonprofits and advocates to work on a strategic plan to help resolve homelessness in Austin. He expects the group to put forth its plan next week.

“What I really liked about the summit was that it was a convening of folks from all sectors in the community, and in my opinion the city of Austin can’t do this alone,” Pool said.

“We said this time and time again, but it really does bear repeating,” she added: “We absolutely need everybody across all sectors in the community in order to address this properly and I want to create a situation where people don’t look just to the city of Austin for this work. We have to do something about that. Nominally we seem to be the head of it all and I think that stands in the way of bringing the larger group in.”

Audits conducted by the Office of the City Auditor between 2017 and 2019 found Austin’s efforts to assist the homeless needed considerable improvement. Auditors made 10 recommendations concerning homelessness assistance and three concerning the city social service contracting process.

Kelsey Thompson, auditor in charge of the follow-ups, told the committee that of the 10 recommendations, the city has implemented three and made progress on four. Two are on hold because of the pandemic and one is considered no longer applicable because of the repeal of anti-camping and anti-panhandling ordinances.

Two of the recommendations relate to questions over whether to repeal the panhandling and no sit/no lie ordinances. Those have been implemented, obviously, although it remains to be seen whether they will be reinstated by a public vote. The 2019 audit also recommended designating a homeless strategy officer, and that person has been hired. Other recommendations were designated as “underway.”

According to a separate follow-up audit, the three recommendations related to social service contracting are all on hold due to Covid-19. Adler noted that Austin Public Health already has plenty to do and might not be the appropriate department for dealing with questions about how to handle social service contracts. He suggested that the Financial Services Department or Law Department could handle those questions.

In response to a question from Council Member Mackenzie Kelly about when the city might resume its efforts to enhance existing homelessness prevention programs and develop new ones as well as improve coordination among social service entities, a spokeswoman for Austin Public Health said those might resume on Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. She said she thought it would be contingent on Covid operations.

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