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HEAL Initiative for the unhoused turns one year old

Tuesday, February 22, 2022 by Willow Higgins

About a year has passed since Austin City Council adopted the HEAL Initiative, which is designed to connect houseless people living in encampments to housing or shelter and supportive services. The Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL as it is known, is now well underway and the city has begun to collect preliminary data on the program.

Dianna Grey, who leads the city’s Homeless Strategy Division, briefed the Public Health Committee on those numbers at its Feb. 9 meeting. While the program is seeing some early successes, not all metrics are quite where Austin Public Health would like them to be.

Since the program began, it has served 182 people living in six different encampments across town by relocating them into some sort of housing or shelter – 32 of the people served have actually been rehoused. Ninety-three percent of those who were offered shelter via the HEAL initiative have accepted the offer.

This fiscal year, the program has provided 40 people from two different encampments housing or shelter and is on track to meet its goal of serving at least 200 people by the end of the fiscal year.

As part of the program, the city has purchased and converted two hotels into bridge shelters, which provide a temporary place to stay before clients transition into something more permanent. As of Jan. 20, 95 individuals were staying at a local bridge shelter, 92 percent of whom had completed a coordinated assessment, a referral to services that prioritizes each client’s individual needs.

“As people came into the shelter, we are finding lower than anticipated numbers of people who have already got a coordinated assessment,” Grey said. “​​We want to continue to report to Council … making sure they’ve got that assessment happening within the first couple of weeks of arriving at shelter, if it hasn’t happened already.”

Similarly, the program has been a bit behind in enrolling participants in a permanent supportive housing program. Sixty-six percent of those staying at a bridge shelter are currently enrolled in a program as of Jan. 20. But the data collection took place shortly after some were relocated from an encampment and had not yet been enrolled in services, bringing down the average. Excluding the new transfers, 85 percent of people staying at a bridge shelter were enrolled in a permanent supportive housing program.

“I still would like to see that higher,” Grey said. “I’d like to see it at 100 percent for people who’ve been there longer than a week.”

Data on the demographics of those the HEAL initiative is serving was also presented to the Public Health Committee, “with a particular interest in ensuring that this approach doesn’t further the disproportionate impacts of homelessness particularly on the African American community,” Grey said.

Thus far, 48 percent of clients are white, 37 percent are Black and 15 percent are Hispanic, although Grey worried about the accuracy of the reported number of Hispanic participants. 

“I’d like to highlight here that the percentage of Black or African American neighbors served through this is roughly commensurate with what we see in the homeless population overall, which is around 36 percent,” Grey explained.

About 30 percent of clients are between the ages of 20 and 35, and another 30 percent are between 36 and 46. About 40 percent of clients are 56 or older.

“So we are seeing quite a few folks, older adults, who may be coming in with substantial medical conditions,” Grey noted.

Committee members concluded with their thanks for the update and for the hard work going into the initiative. “It’s very successful,” committee Chair Kathie Tovo said. “You’re having great, great success at getting individuals housed safely and then on the track to permanent housing, so thank you.”

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