More than half of Austin’s homeless have struggled to move off the streets for at least a year

By Christopher Neely, Olivia Aldridge, Iain Oldman |  6:00 am Aug. CDT

Jeffrey Adler sits in the shade of a tree outside the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center on Manchaca Road one Thursday in late July. The weekday services offered by the nonprofit have provided a tether for Adler, who has been on the streets and constantly on the move for years.

“I’m outdoors, completely,” Adler says. “I’ve got a little tent under the bridge. I’ve been moving back and forth. It depends on which cop’s on duty, sometimes. And every move means you’re gonna lose some of your stuff.”  

Over on the first floor of downtown’s Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Philip Buchanan, 51, arrives right at noon to work a custodial shift and meet with his case manager. Homeless for most of his life, Buchanan has slept in the ARCH every night since December 2018 while slowly moving up the overcrowded waitlist for public housing.

Right outside the shelter, Tommy Jackson, 32, tries to stay within the shallow, midday shadow of the building as he searches for a cigarette light. Jackson said he’s been trying to get into case management, but has had no luck. Although he chooses to live outside, he tries to remain in close proximity to the shelter.

“It’s more convenient to sleep out here,” Jackson said, motioning to the crowded sidewalk. “We feel connected. It’s like a community.”

Such situations are becoming more common in the capital city. Austin’s homeless population is growing, and more people, like Adler, Buchanan and Jackson, are staying homeless longer, leading to a public outcry and a deepening health crisis among the city’s most vulnerable residents, experts said.


Since 2015, Austin has seen a significant rise in its rate of chronic homelessness—cases in which an individual has experienced homelessness for more than a year, or on four separate occasions in three years. In 2015, 22% of the homeless population were chronic cases; in 2018, the chronically homeless made up 54% of the growing overall homeless population, the Austin-based Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, reported.




people experienced homelessness in United States.


of all people experiencing homelessness nationwide (counted on a single night in 2018) were classified as chronically homeless.




people experienced homelessness in Austin.


were chronically homeless.

Sources: U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development 2018 Annual Homelessness report to Congress, ending community homeless coalition / Community Impact Newspaper

Number of people who experienced homelessness

The number of people who experience homelessness for any amount of time in a year in Austin has increased over the last several years.

Chronically Homeless

Although the homeless population has grown 13% since 2015, chronic homelessness has skyrocketed.


Local government has historically been slow to respond to this issue as it has crept to the center of the community’s consciousness. While the unsheltered homeless population grew by hundreds between 2015 and 2018, Austin gained only 21 shelter beds, according to ECHO. The development boom has not produced as much deeply affordable housing—available to those earning under 60% of the area’s median income— as previously expected, and waitlists for public housing have grown to wait times of at least three years.

However, Austin has taken a more aggressive approach in 2019. The city brought in the National Alliance to End Homelessness to consult on solutions, purchased a new shelter space—its first since 2004—and began turning the ARCH into a housing-focused facility. City Council passed laws to incentivize deeply affordable housing construction throughout the city and decriminalized public camping—a controversial move that drew widespread attention.

City leaders said increased attention is the first step to real progress as government cannot carry the load alone. Rather, they said, the issue demands a community effort, from nonprofit, to the private sector and from elected officials to everyday citizens.


Clem Hollingsworth, 32, has experienced homelessness for 12 years, but since January has camped across the street from the ARCH. He has three priorities: finding water, finding a bathroom and obtaining a public housing voucher. 

“We need more restrooms and water fountains,” Hollingsworth said while standing in 100-degree weather one July afternoon. “I don’t want to become a sex offender [by urinating in public]; I just want to piss. When you’re homeless, your bladder is shocked. That’s why so many people be pissing on themselves.” 

Hollingsworth points to another man outside the ARCH, passed out, alone, in a wheelchair. “Where is he supposed to piss at?” Hollingsworth asked. “We just need help, man.” 

Hollingsworth said people often donate water cases to the crowd outside the ARCH. Public bathrooms are more limited, but there are a few options. As for a public housing voucher, if Hollingsworth is lucky, he could receive one in three years.

Demand in Austin for publicly funded housing programs, such as Section 8, has jumped by 33% over the last five years, said Mike Gerber, president of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, a local public housing entity that assists more than 20,000 Austinites. Last fall, when HACA opened up its waiting list for the first time in three years, Gerber said they received 19,000 applications, but had to reject all but 2,000 due solely to capacity constraints. The 17,000 rejected applications represented roughly 30,000 people, he said.

Pressure on local public housing programs—funded mostly by the federal government—continues to mount as living in Austin becomes more desirable; however, Gerber said, such programs have suffered from “historical underinvestment” from federal and local entities. 

This deepens the threat made by situations like eviction, said Fred Fuches, an attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. Fuches said the growing affordability issues and limited resources available for the poor make the threat of post-eviction homelessness greater in Austin. In addition to a years-long waitlist for public housing, Austin has a 94% occupancy rate on all rental units throughout the city.  Fuches said in Austin, it is “very, very hard” to find a home after eviction.

“If we had more vouchers, we’d have fewer homeless people,” Gerber said. “We’ve been remarkably underfunded in the services we provide to low-income people, [but]we’re doing a lot to catch up.”

Add mental health programs to that list of underfunded services, said Darilynn Cardona-Belier, director of adult behavioral services at Integral Care, which has provided Travis County’s homeless with mental and behavioral health services for decades. 

Cardona-Belier said slow rehousing rates leave the homeless on the streets for longer, exacerbating trauma. 

“When you’re out on the streets for a very long time, your system is on overdrive,” she said. “Individuals are exposed to a lot of trauma over and over again. It becomes difficult to manage.”

Integral Care recently expanded its homelessness-focused staff from five to 100, but Cardona-Belier said they remain overwhelmed. Since 2014, their client base has spiked by nearly 50%. 

Deputy Drew McAngus serves on the Travis County Precinct 3 Constable's Outreach Program, or CORP, travels throughout Southwest Austin to identify homeless individuals and connect them to resources.
Deputy Drew McAngus serves on the Travis County Precinct 3 Constable's Outreach Program, or CORP, travels throughout Southwest Austin to identify homeless individuals and connect them to resources.


Community members from across sectors agree government cannot address the issue alone.  

Significant examples of success driven by community partnerships already exist throughout the city.

Alan Graham, CEO of the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes, credits his team and a bevy of private donations for Community First! Village, an internationally-lauded, 51-acre, master-planned community in East Austin that has permanently housed more than 200 homeless individuals. Graham’s team is working on an expansion aimed at housing hundreds more.

Integral Care’s Terrace at Oak Springs, a 50-unit housing project in East Austin with on-site medical service, is expected to open this year, which Cardona-Belier said owes to a partnership between private donors, nonprofits, and government.

Lighter Loads ATX opened March 2019 in North Austin. The nonprofit is set to launch a trailer this fall that will provide bathing and laundry services to the homeless. Laura Ritchie, who founded the organization alongside her husband James, said Lighter Loads helps fill a void in the homeless services offered in the northern neck of the city. Of all the shelters that were accepting new residents as of this article’s publication, only one—the Hope Alliance in Round Rock—is located north of 51st Street in Austin.

Although Lighter Loads cannot provide shelter, its trailer will provide a place for people to launder soiled clothes, shower and restock on hygiene kits. The Ritchies aspire to offer medical services eventually.

“Everything that we’re seeking to bring is what is needed,” Laura Ritchie said. “[The homeless] need to be able to get medical, dental, vision and hearing checks; they need to have clothing, they need to have hygiene items, to be able to take a shower, shaves and haircuts—all of those things are what they need.”

Down in South Austin, Mark Hilbelink, Sunrise Community Church pastor and a leader of the Navigation Center, said in July his organization has connected over 400 people to housing in the four years the center has operated. Crucial partnerships for the organization include nonprofits, health care providers and the Travis County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, which sends a court clerk to the center several days a week to help oversee operations as part of the Constable’s Outreach Program, or CORP.

CORP, a program unique to Precinct 3 in South Travis County, was developed in February 2017 by Constable Stacy Suits and Deputy Drew McAngus. The program’s other arm is run by McAngus, who travels the precinct, often with a social worker from Integral Care, making contact with homeless South Austinites and engaging them with resources. On average, McAngus connected with over 170 people each month over the past year.


Suits’ requests for funding to expand CORP across other precincts have been rejected. He plans to keep asking.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army’s new 212-bed Rathgeber Center, a shelter dedicated for families and children, has had to postpone its opening for months due to a funding gap of roughly $5 million. Council Member Kathie Tovo has angled for Austin to bridge some of that gap, but said private philanthropy need to step up. 

Bill Brice, a leader with the downtown stakeholder group Downtown Austin Alliance, said the private sector is better suited to help because it is free from much of the red tape that plagues government. 

“But we need to figure out a game plan,” Brice said. “Leadership in the private sector is desperately needed.”  

Brice said much discussion in the private sector is focused on emergency shelters. This is where the wider community may come in. 

When City Council voted to purchase a tract in South Austin for a new housing shelter, most of the neighbors who publicly weighed in objected harshly to the proposal. Mayor Steve Adler and the rest of City Council assured the public that if they wanted to see serious progress made on homelessness, similar shelters or resource centers would need to come to every City Council district, and neighbors, just like all the community’s other sectors, would need to do their part.

Labren McKay, 47, said he has been homeless for 31 years.
Mayor Steve Adler [from right] and City Council members Greg Casar, Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen held their first town hall on addressing homelessness on Aug. 21 at the Austin Convention Center.