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City starts second phase of homeless housing plan

Thursday, November 18, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s push to move at least 200 people out of homeless encampments and into permanent housing began earlier this week, with 15 people living in the Slaughter Creek floodplain in South Austin receiving assistance and temporary housing.

The effort marks the kickoff of the second phase of the city’s Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL initiative, which was implemented in February and helped house 143 people as of the Aug. 31 end of the first phase.

Dianna Grey, the city’s homeless strategy officer, said city staffers evaluated about a dozen known encampments to determine where to begin phase two of HEAL. While there is no firm date on when the next location will be selected and visited to offer assistance, there will be “ongoing and regular” work done to meet the goal for getting people into shelters and then homes.

“Council has given us direction to have HEAL help at least 200 people and so we expect this will be pretty regular through the course of this fiscal year,” she said. “One of the things we are monitoring is the availability of room in our bridge shelters and looking for ways to move them through and into permanent housing faster.”

Workers from the Homeless Outreach Street Team and similar groups typically visit the sites days in advance to let inhabitants know they will have access to assistance and won’t be forced from the site as an enforcement of the city’s camping ban that was reenacted in May. Grey said about 90 percent of those living in the encampments cooperate and accept the help to move into shelter, and eventually permanent housing.

Since the return of the camping ban, encampments around the city have moved to be more secluded, which Grey said increases the danger of flooding and fire incidents because wooded areas including some city parklands are harder for law enforcement to detect.

“Often there’s a tension between access to resources and being close to transportation services, food and care versus, because of the reinstatement of the camping ordinance, being out of the way and less visible,” she said. “That’s what we’re seeing in the way these people are being driven because they are less likely to draw attention. In addition to that moving them further away from services, those sites are often where there are flood and fire risks that can be higher.”

While city staff identified two city-owned sites in East Austin and South Austin as possible locations for encampments that could be operated by the city and service organizations, Grey said there has been no further action taken because Council would need to provide direction on the “substantial timeline and substantial dedication of staff resources” required to move forward.

The Manor Road site is being considered by the Housing and Planning Department as a location for affordable housing, with some plans calling for the inclusion of permanent supportive housing for the formerly homeless.

Asked about the fundraising push to complete the $515 million plan to end homelessness outlined in a spring summit on the issue, Grey said talks are underway with major donors who will be needed to supply the final $115 million. She said private donors have committed $2 million in new funding to help the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition with its outreach efforts.

The Federal Home Loan Bank also recently pledged up to $2 million to fund capital projects related to the summit plan.

Grey said in the next six months the city will issue several requests for proposals related to homelessness efforts, with $106 million committed from the city’s funding from the American Rescue Plan. The first round of RFPs will target building capacity for service groups connected to homelessness so they will be able to handle the workload expected in coming years.

“It is extremely unusual that we would ever have this much money to RFP at once,” she said. “There are certain funding options we may be able to achieve through our interlocal agreements with other entities or through passthrough funding to local coalitions. But the vast majority of those funds will be going out through an (RFP) process that is open to providers at large.”

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