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Advisory council provides a voice for people experiencing homelessness

Monday, November 8, 2021 by Anna Kate Browne

In the ongoing discussions about solving homelessness in Austin, it’s rare to have people actually experiencing homelessness included in the conversation.

That’s the mission of the Austin Homelessness Advisory Council, a group of Austinites who are currently experiencing or have previously experienced homelessness. AHAC was created through Austin’s Innovation Office in 2017, funded by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Their remit is to advise organizations and government entities, giving policymakers the inside perspective of those who have lived experiences with homelessness.

The council is made up of people across the spectrum of those experiencing homelessness in every area of Austin. People start the process to become members with referrals from service providers or by filling out interest forms. They are interviewed to make sure that they understand the objective of AHAC, and then they can be invited to join the council. 

The Downtown Austin Community Court took over the administration and management of the council in March 2017. Robert Kingham, manager of court operations, and Laura Williamson, business process specialist, facilitate in-person meetings and survey distribution. They work in the background to collect topics and get them ready to present to the council.

“Individuals with lived experience must be at the table … providing their guidance and their input,” Kingham said. “Having a group like AHAC provides that opportunity.” 

“We really look at what the makeup of homelessness is in our community and make sure that the group is representative of that,” he said.

Hypothetically, if a member representing a particular group were to leave the council, the council would recommend a replacement that continues to represent that group. This is a plan that they have never had to initiate, however, because Kingham says no one has resigned from the council since the Downtown Community Court took over.

AHAC advises many organizations across Austin, including City Council, the Office of the City Manager and the Office of Police Oversight, as well as government entities and nonprofit organizations like Front Steps. Organizations may submit requests to have AHAC give feedback on different topics they need input on. 

Over the course of its existence, the council has convened over a variety of topics, including giving feedback on city practices and community programs that affect the homeless population.

Kingham says City Council members used to stop by when meetings were in-person to get input.

“Working with AHAC and other community members with firsthand experience of homelessness helps make our community’s policies and governance more equitable and more responsive to the needs of people who are without stable housing in Austin/Travis County,” Matt Mollica, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said in a statement.

Members of the council can also present topics, giving them a platform to discuss issues the homeless community is experiencing.

Due to Covid-19, the group is not meeting in-person, so members fill out surveys on topics every two weeks. They pick up and turn in the surveys at the Downtown Austin Community Court at One Texas Center. 

Members receive a participation incentive of a $25 prepaid Visa or MasterCard gift card for each hour of in-person meetings.

AHAC is currently working on providing input to the Homeless Strategy Division and Austin Public Health about the services, amenities, environment, culture and staffing provided at two bridge shelters.

The advisory council “doesn’t just benefit the city of Austin as an entity,” Kingham said. “It benefits the city of Austin as a community, and everyone who is impacted by homelessness.”

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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