Wednesday, June 30, 2021 by Seth Smalley

County deliberates joining city to end homelessness

On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court discussed the cardinal question of how to allocate a considerable amount of money coming to the county from the American Rescue Plan Act. Much of the discussion centered on homelessness, and whether the county would join the city in its commitment to dedicate a meaningful portion of its ARPA funding toward ending homelessness in Austin.

The county will only receive half of the total $247 million in ARPA funding now, with the rest becoming available next May. Planning and Budget staff members recommended the county start spending the money on July 1. According to Travis Gatlin, county budget director, three tracks of funding make up 30 percent of the total ARPA funding. The rest would remain available for commissioners to decide how to distribute.

Staff recommendations for allocating the $38 million in track one include workforce development, food, child care and rental assistance, and “targeted behavioral health support for homelessness.” Staffers recommended (for now) just $325,000 of track one funding to go toward the homelessness issue.

Commissioner Ann Howard proposed putting greater attention on workforce development and child care assistance, while Commissioner Brigid Shea argued the court should listen to the community before deciding particular allocations, though she specified, “that does not in any way preclude us from evaluating these other programs (in the future), and adding them.”

Commissioner Jeff Travillion seemed to agree, calling for more specific project plans before any votes take place.

Track two funding, as recommended by staff, was devoted to water infrastructure, broadband infrastructure, and mental health/homelessness services among others.

On the homelessness issue, Diana Ramirez with the Planning and Budget Office said, “These issue areas reside within Health and Human Services and Justice Planning. They have identified next steps which involve collaborating with long-term partners such as Integral Care.”

Ramirez told the commissioners that the estimated funding needed (regarding behavioral health and homelessness) was $250,000 for Justice Planning and HHS to stitch their efforts together into a “comprehensive and scalable solution.” City of Austin staffers estimate that $515 million is needed over the next two years in order to fully address the problem.

“Track two, as a reminder, relates to the major new programs that the court has previously agreed would be dependent on a robust community engagement process,” Ramirez said.

Referencing City Council’s $84 million conditional commitment to homelessness spending – contingent on the county and philanthropic groups also committing to a substantial amount – Commissioner Ann Howard said, “We know that there’s a huge movement and collaboration underway that needs to have some indication of the county’s commitment … I’m wondering if we’re ready to indicate our willingness and desire to be a part of this community effort?”

County Judge Andy Brown expressed measured support for the idea of investing a large amount toward solving homelessness.

“I support the concept of addressing a lot of this money – $100 million, whatever it is – but I think it’s important to recognize the distinct role that the county has had – and has – compared to the city and private sector,” Brown said. “Housing is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. I think this is an opportunity for the county to invest in community-based prevention models, maybe try some new things, and also direct services.

“I get that we don’t want others driving the conversation for us,” Brown said, referring to the pressure on the county from City Council’s conditional commitment, “but do we say that there’s some amount that we would like to spend on this general concept? I really support the concept of what Commissioner Howard is suggesting.”

Other commissioners, namely Travillion and Shea, seemed to disagree with the idea of allocating a substantial chunk of the money toward homelessness.

“I’ve always wanted well-defined specific targets; I would rather staff work through it and give me something to respond to rather than spitball it, if you will,” Travillion said, calling for the commissioners to make sure they “achieve the goals (they) set in place.”

He pointed to the failure of the Colony Park plan: no library, no health care clinic and infrequent bus transportation.

“I want to provide services to the community. I’m not trying to hold back. I want to have a plan,” Travillion said.

Somewhat agreeing with Travillion, Brown said, “I don’t want to lose this moment, so I want to somehow direct staff, within this motion, to look at where we could spend $100 million of whatever is left to look at housing, health, mental health – just very clearly direct staff that that is the ballpark that we are looking at for something along those lines.”

Shea, however, called for the need to see the financial breakdown on the city’s $500 million price tag for its long-term vision for solving homelessness, highlighting other county services that would require money. She emphasized that the county does not have the money for ongoing costs for homelessness services.

“This is one-time money and our ongoing revenue stream is so constrained; we’re going to have trouble meeting our commitment to our brand-new public defender office when the grant money goes away. They’ll be operating at 30 percent,” Shea said. “I think it would be criminal of us to put money into something and then say to people, when the money runs out, you’re all fired.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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