Austin’s new homelessness response manager offers thoughts on the growing issue

A man finds shade on the sidewalk across the street from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

A man finds shade on the sidewalk across the street from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

A little more than two weeks into her job, Lori Pampilo Harris, the city’s long-awaited homelessness strategy officer, spent an hour under the Ben White overpass, an area that has become notorious for some in the community as a gathering place for people experiencing homelessness.

Pampilo Harris said she met a range of people with a range of lived experiences. She specifically remembered a woman who had an art history degree, a man who was a property owner in the city for more than a decade and another who said he had a plan to escape homelessness if only he had an ID.

Pampilo Harris said that for her, being in the trenches and learning is central to success in her new role.

“When I do see someone here experiencing homelessness, my first question is, 'How long have they been here?' and, 'Is the crisis response system built to identify them, get them assessed and move them to housing as quickly as possible?'” Pampilo Harris said. “I do believe in making sure in making sure we have the lived experiences [of those experiencing homelessness] to be a part of creating the crisis response system.”

After almost of a year of elected officials debating the need for a manager for Austin’s response to its growing homelessness issue, City Manager Spencer Cronk named Pampilo Harris, from Orlando, to the newly created position in August. She started Sept. 9.

Mayor Steve Adler and City Council had begun setting high expectations for the position long before Cronk announced the hire. But Pampilo Harris said she has not felt the pressure. Rather, she said, she has placed a lot of expectations on Austin. She wants to ensure the city is receptive to implementing policies that she said have proven effective in communities across the country—from building a robust, affordable housing pipeline to simply gaining perspective on the issue.

“The community needs to understand that this is a long path ahead of us,” Pampilo Harris said. “This is not just an issue where you implement A, B and C, [and] then it’s done, and there’s a book for it. If that was the case, the country would look very different.”

Pampilo Harris said her experience in dealing with tragedy has helped prepare her for the intensity of managing the city’s homelessness issue. She volunteered extensively in Haiti after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake and helped compose what she called a “complex response system” following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which took 49 lives in 2016.

“I’m used to dealing with those complex issues in many different ways,” she said. “I’m here to bring a fresh perspective to the homelessness situation in Austin.”

Although many experts have said homelessness is a complicated issue to address because it is so locally nuanced, Pampilo Harris disagreed. She acknowledged some community-to-community variation, but said there are tried and proven solutions that can be applied across the board.

“I think very differently—the issue is a little nuanced, but data, again, nationally, says there really is a path forward for every community,” Pampilo Harris said. “You just have to really dig deep, invest well and invest strategically. We have found that there are some solutions that work in every community—housing, strategic partnerships, public-private investments. You can always refine the broader response in accordance to [local] data.”

She said the local nuance in Austin is the historic $62.7 million investment from City Council for programs to help address homelessness. Although much of the homelessness budget is held in one-time funds—money allocated only for fiscal year 2019-20 as opposed to ongoing commitments—Pampilo Harris said the city has provided flexibility for her position to make recommendations on funding and seek more money for programs as she sees necessary.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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