As Austin remains on path to overhaul its strategy to address a growing homelessness problem, experts urged City Council on May 21 to keep the focus on housing-first efforts, saying the method has proven itself as the only viable solution.
Across the country, homelessness has decreased by 15% since 2007; since 2017, homelessness has declined in 31 states. However, in Austin, the homeless population has seen consecutive annual increases of 5% over the last two years. The issue has grown into a central focus for local policymakers.
The widespread decrease in homelessness across the country is owed in part to a modernizing understanding of the issue and a new focus by communities on solving the problem rather than managing it, said Director Cynthia Nagendra and Technical Assistance Specialist Kristi Schulenberg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an organization the city teamed up with in its revamped homelessness efforts.
Providing permanent housing and streamlining emergency shelter stays reflect the new thinking around homelessness, strategies Austin is working toward after years of limiting much of its services to the lone Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or the ARCH, a downtown emergency shelter that has drawn the ire of many community members.
Earlier this year, Austin linked up with the National Alliance to End Homelessness to help revolutionize the ARCH from the only city-run, short-term emergency shelter into a triage center, where clients could stay for three to five days while the workers connected them to a pool of city services to help them out of homelessness.
Nagendra and Schulenberg pressed City Council to not only provide more housing for the homeless, but to also move away from the single one-stop-shop method and to expand its homelessness service offerings across the city to make them more accessible.
Austin City Council has resolved to build a new operational emergency shelter—the first since the ARCH in 2004—by the end of September; however, Nagendra and Schulenberg said no new shelters should open without a permanent housing exit strategy in place.
Schulenberg acknowledged the difficulty of making such major changes but said the strategies would help to immediately reduce homelessness. Nagendra said Houston, who has taken on a similar strategy, has reduced its unsheltered homeless population by more than 80% over recent years through similar programming. Connecticut as a state has seen an estimated 90% decrease, while Georgia has shown a 60% reduction.
Austin is also working on hiring a new executive position to oversee the city’s homelessness efforts, a position Mayor Steve Adler has continually referred to as the “homelessness czar.” City Manager Spencer Cronk said May 21 that his team was dissatisfied with the pedigree of applicants the city has received for the position. Cronk said they were adjusting the role and salary in hopes of attracting a more talented pool. Cronk said “hopefully” someone will be hired by the end of summer.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the rank of Austin’s new homelessness oversight position.