As Austin budgets $60M to fight homelessness, outbreak threatens to make things worse – Austin American-Statesman

Austin city leaders plan to spend more than $60 million over the next year to continue efforts to end homeless in the city. But with an ongoing pandemic leaving more people without income and support, homelessness in Austin could worsen before it gets better, area advocates say.

Matt Mollica, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said some models from the city and ECHO are projecting a 6% increase in the number of households that will need some form of assistance from the homeless response network — which includes a variety of services ranging from counseling and financial guidance to more in-depth service like supporting housing — if evictions begin to be enforced and federal rental assistance or stimulus money dries up.

“That’s about 53,000 households and a significant number of people,” Mollica said.

Austin’s proposed annual budget earmarks $60.9 million for combating homelessness, about $12.5 million less than the 2019-20 budget. However, city leaders say the difference is due to several one-time purchases the city made last year knowing this year’s budget would be hit by a state-imposed tax rate cap of 3.5%. Those funds included things like $8 million to purchase a Rodeway Inn property in South Austin and $5.5 million for the Rental Housing Development Assistance Program, among other items.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the city spent between $33.8 million and $37.1 million each year on homelessness.

Mayor Steve Adler said those efforts mark a continuation in the city’s plan to stop moving homelessness around, and instead attack and try to to end it.

Of the funding allocated to homeless-related issues, $20.5 million would go to preventing people from falling into homelessness, $31.9 million to crisis mitigation and $8.6 million to empower people who are homeless by providing ongoing access to resources and housing.

“I think there’s a recognition that we have been spending tens of millions of dollars just moving homelessness around in our city, rather than actually addressing it and ending it. I think the community is asking us to find better balances to how we share public space in the city and I think that’s part of the work,” Adler said. “Most people don’t want us to return to a day when homelessness was being sent to the woods where we just didn’t have to see it, where people were being put in danger.”

A report released July 22 on the city’s efforts to address homelessness in the past year found that adopting more humane, person-centered approaches to homelessness response yields better outcomes than punitive policies commonly used throughout the country.

The report, which was conducted by Barbara Poppe and Associates and paid for by the city, found current investments from the city could see better results if they were aligned with a focused, system-wide strategy as both the COVID-19 crisis an ongoing homelessness issue continue.

“A strategic, simultaneous solution to both crises is possible. They require robust and coordinated investments across both public and private sectors that engage a wide range of systems, organizations, and programs,” the report said, adding that solutions would need to reduce the inflow of people into homelessness, provide outreach to those who become homeless and more quickly connect people housing and support.

The annual point-in-time count of Austin’ homeless population conducted this year tallied 2,506 people experiencing homelessness either in shelters or living on the streets, an 11% increase over the year before. The count also showed a 45% increase in the unsheltered population over the year before to 1,575, the highest unsheltered count since 2011.

Adler said that despite the pandemic, the city has made inroads with its homelessness response efforts, including acquiring hotels where people who are homeless can isolate, and broader efforts to bring the government together with businesses, service providers and other stakeholders to form a single and unified community plan.

“As concerns people experiencing homelessness, we shouldn’t be putting them in jail or giving them tickets or sending them back to the woods,” Adler said. “We should be helping to find them homes so they can stabilize and turn around their lives. I think that’s what the city budget is helping to move us toward.”

Mollica said the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and other service providers also are looking for ways to put city funds together with state and federal dollars to build out a more strategic spending framework. He said he’s glad to see more funding coming in from the city.

“The service providers here in Austin, and obviously (the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition), have known for a long time that we need higher level of investment, and the fact that the system’s been neglected for as long as it has, from the federal, state, local governments across the country, we’re seeing a real need for increased investment,” he said.

But the city’s priorities are not without their detractors. Last week, Save Austin Now, a group headed by Travis County Republican Party Chairman Matt Mackowiak, said it has obtained enough petition signatures to bring a public vote on the city’s public camping rules in November. Those signatures still need to be validated. (Who validates them — the city, the county clerk’s office?)

The organization has worked since last summer to restore a ban on public camping, along with rules related to panhandling at night, saying they make the city less safe for both people who are homeless and the rest of the community.

If the measure gets onto the ballot, Adler said he doesn’t think it will find wide support.

“I think that that some of the groups in town are trying to make us scared of a community of people that by and large are no threat. They’re just trying to survive. And we know that if we invest in things like permanent supportive housing, organizations like Caritas overwhelmingly are successful in getting people off the street and in places where they can improve their lives,” Adler said.

Mollica said the fallout from the coronavirus panademic has shown how complex homelessness is, and how easy it is for people to fall into homelessness when they lose support.

“I think the community sees now you know just how fragile that can be and how many people are one paycheck away, and I do I think that there’s potentially a new realization about why we have people experiencing homelessness in our community,” he said.

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