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Homeless Strategy Office gears up to launch second phase of HEAL initiative

Friday, October 8, 2021 by Kali Bramble

Following the success of its pilot program this past summer, Austin’s Homeless Strategy Office is moving forward with its four-part plan to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis.

Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey briefed the Public Health Committee last Wednesday on Project HEAL’s latest developments as it prepares to launch its second phase in November. Over the next month, the city will aim to evaluate which encampments it should target next.

The HEAL initiative, approved by City Council back in February, has seen preliminary success in relocating nearly 150 of the city’s homeless to temporary shelters in a program designed to offer a path toward permanent housing. Heading into its second phase, the Homeless Strategy Office seeks to expand its reach equitably with the help of more developed research methods.

The transient nature of homeless populations presents unique challenges in tracking the conditions of Austin’s many encampments. To power this effort, the division collaborates with 10 departments across the city to synthesize the data necessary to inform where to prioritize outreach. 

“We talk a lot about how many departments at the city of Austin touch the issue of homelessness,” Grey said, emphasizing the interdepartmental approach to this challenge. 

These departments, ranging from Austin Police to Watershed Protection, allow for “the leveraging of unique sets of tools and expertise,” said Grey, as each group interfaces with the city’s homeless population in its own context.

This past month, Project HEAL asked each of the 10 departments for feedback in establishing a short list of contending encampments for phase two of the initiative.

“Acknowledging that each of them were bringing their own perspective and missions … what we saw is that there’s certainly a lot of overlap,” Grey said, of the sites identified by the partnering departments.

Next, the division plans to apply an extensive criteria of public health and safety hazards to evaluate which encampments to prioritize. In order to bolster the program, it has begun hiring more staff with newly allotted funding from the city’s 2022 budget. The division aims to finalize the list and begin launching relocation efforts by Nov. 1.

As Project HEAL gears up for further action this winter, staff has also been improving the program’s data collection and analysis methods. Partnering organization ECHO, or the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, joined Grey in briefing the Public Health Committee on updates to the program’s Homeless Management Information System that acts as its central tool for sharing data and evaluating project outcomes.

HMIS’s newest feature is a public interface that shares metrics like volume of enrollment, demographics and system capacity with the surrounding community. Those interested can check out the tool here.

While Project HEAL is designed with transparency in mind, Grey voiced the need to keep some details of phase two under wraps. She confirmed that the division would not publicize the final list of encampments, explaining that sharing this information could destabilize already hazardous sites with an influx of people seeking shelter through the program.

Given these stakes, the public will have to wait until the committee’s next meeting in November for further updates. In the meantime, Grey maintains that there is much work to be done.

“We have so many sites across the city – the need is so great. Part of the challenge is determining the ones we prioritize.”

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