AUSTIN BETWEEN ENDS OF NATIONAL SPECTRUM ON HOMELESSNESS

While some US cities see a worsening problem, others find effective solutions

By Jack Flagler |  6:00 am Aug. CDT

Since Austin City Council passed two ordinances related to homelessness in June, the  issue has dominated the local political conversation. 

The city lifted bans on homeless individuals camping, sitting and lying down in certain public areas. Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted June 23 that Texas would override those ordinances. Austin Mayor Steve Adler then defended the rules, responding that Austin’s plan “innovates to succeed where other cities are failing.”  

On Aug. 8, City Council created a local government corporation to address homelessness, a nonprofit that will act on behalf of the city and have more funding resources at its disposal. 

While Austin may have seemed like the epicenter of the homelessness issue this summer, data shows that the severity of the issue in Austin aligns with the national average.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 17 of every 10,000 U.S. residents were homeless in 2018. Travis County had 17.5 homeless individuals per 10,000 residents counted on a single night in January 2018, the highest ratio in Texas but far lower than Los Angeles—53.44 homeless individuals per 10,000 residents—and King County, Washington, which includes Seattle—55.34 homeless individuals per 10,000 residents.

But not every American city is struggling to contain the problem. Community Solutions, a national nonprofit that works to find effective solutions to homelessness, has certified 12 communities as achieving “functional zero” with certain segments of their homeless populations, meaning those communities have fewer homeless people than they can permanently house in a single month. 

Calvin Streeter is a professor at The University of Texas Steve Hicks School of Social Work. His research has included work with the National Homelessness Social Work Initiatives, a program that prepares students for careers helping the homeless.

“There’s a tendency for people to think, ‘We don’t know what to do about this problem,’” Streeter said. “We have a lot of evidence-based solutions … but it requires resources and political will.”

SEATTLE'S GROWING ISSUE

In early July, Adler visited Los Angeles and Seattle to learn more about local efforts to improve transportation and homelessness issues. 

Adler met with mayors in both cities as well as homeless service providers. In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan told Adler home prices in Seattle six years ago were similar to Austin’s today. According to her office, Seattle rents have increased 57% since then, amplifying an affordability crisis that has contributed to homelessness.

“Their challenges are now so big, they’re hard to get a handle on,” Adler said. “So we really want to try to get ours handled before we get to that place.”

Jon Scholes, the president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said as homelessness has spread from downtown to the entire city, the term has become shorthand for issues ranging from opioid abuse to crime to a lack of mental health services.

“In some ways we need to stop talking about it as homelessness. That framing has been used by some interests to oversimplify the set of issues we face and to prescribe a solution that’s convenient to them, that’s narrow and that won’t affect the broad set of issues,” Scholes said.

Chloe Gale has been working with the homeless for more than 20 years. She is now the co-director of Reach, a Seattle homeless outreach program. 

In the 1990s, Gale said, homelessness was tied to issues such as alcoholism for which Seattle could build effective systems. Today, she said, the number of homeless individuals has increased so rapidly that the chance to build new systems has passed. 

Gale said most homeless individuals are locals who have simply “fallen off the bottom rung” into poverty. 

Data from King County’s 2019 point-in-time count backs that up: 84% of the area’s homeless population reported that they lived in the county before becoming homeless. 

Still, Gale said Seattle homeless service providers have the skill and ability to house the homeless. The key—as city leaders have echoed in Austin—is finding the necessary resources. 

“This is not a Seattle problem or Austin problem or even a U.S. problem,” Gale said.

“The entire Western developed world is facing this.”

A UNIFIED APPROACH

A decade ago, Bergen County, New Jersey, was facing an increase in its chronically homeless population—or those who have been homeless for more than a year or experienced homelessness four times or more in the course of three years. 

The county, which has a population similar to Austin’s, put together a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, including an $11 million county investment in the construction of a 20,000-square-foot Housing, Health and Human Services Center focused on permanent housing for homeless individuals.

Julia Orlando is the director of the HHHSC. She said the key factors in success for Bergen County included strong leadership and political will from county and housing authority officials, a concerted effort to gather better data than the annual point-in-time count could provide and creating a by-name directory of every homeless individual. 

All that led to better coordination and alignment of those working on the issue, from the housing authority to nonprofit organizations to faith-based institutions. Between 2010 and 2017, Bergen County cut its chronically homeless population by 96% and placed more than 1,100 homeless individuals in permanent housing, according to Orlando. In 2017, Community Solutions announced that Bergen County had ended chronic homelessness, meaning that homelessness is rare, brief and nonrecurring. 

In the two years since, Orlando said her shelter is full most days. People will always fall into homelessness, but she said the community has the tools to respond because it has agreed on an approach. 

That alignment is not always easy, Orlando said, because different groups will have different perspectives on the issue. In the end, however, she said the motives do not have to be altruistic as long as the common goal is putting a roof over peoples’ heads.

“What’s that concentric circle of what we all agree to? We don’t want to see people on the street anymore,” she said. 

Adler said Austin’s issue is not so much coordinating its resources the way Bergen County did, but finding sufficient funding for those programs and finding housing for the homeless. 

“If they go into the shelter and into triage process, there has to be a home on the back side of it,” he said. 

Jake Maguire, the principal at Community Solutions and co-director of its Built for Zero program, which operates in 71 communities across the country, said providing housing is the solution to homelessness, but there is more complexity to the solution. 

Even the communities that are able to pump dollars into their public housing systems cannot expect results without improving and organizing their systems, he said. 

At a more fundamental level, Maguire said, there needs to be a mindset change that homelessness is an issue to be solved—not just managed or contained—and that those solutions are out there. 

“There are 12 communities that have gotten to zero. You can’t tell me it’s impossible anymore,” Maguire said.

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