Amid pushback, council agrees to temporarily bring in former head of federal homelessness agency

Austin City Council approved the prospective hire of Matthew Doherty on Feb. 6. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Council approved the prospective hire of Matthew Doherty on Feb. 6. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Council approved the prospective hire of Matthew Doherty on Feb. 6. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Four months after the sudden departure of Austin’s long-awaited homelessness czar, Austin is aiming to bring on a temporary consultant with national expertise to help focus the city’s efforts to address its growing homelessness challenges.

Several members of the local homeless community pushed back against the prospective hiring of Matthew Doherty, former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, for an eight-month, potentially $95,000 contract. District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he was not confident the hire would address challenges the city has faced. City Council approved the prospective hiring on a 10-1 vote with Flannigan voting against it.

Assistant City Manager Christopher Shorter said Doherty’s hiring would not be a substitute for homelessness czar, but an interim position that will provide expertise and help recruit a more permanent position. Shorter said Doherty’s national experience would be crucial in helping the city leverage national resources for Austin.

However, it is Doherty’s national experience that made some community members skeptical about the hire. Several members of the community experiencing homelessness in Austin spoke to City Council, most highlighting the disconnect between the efforts at City Hall and the experiences of those who live on the streets.

“How is [Doherty] an expert?” said Christy Thompson, an Austinite who recently became homeless. “You have experts right here. You have experts all over the street.”

Doherty was fired from his executive role with the federal homelessness agency in November and was hired to advise California Gov. Gavin Newsom on addressing the state’s homelessness challenges. Austin resident Brian Thornton said he was concerned about how much focus Doherty could give to the city if he is operating as a national consultant based in Washington, D.C., and also working with California on its major homelessness challenges.

City Manager Spencer Cronk said Doherty would operate within the “Austin model,” which requires engagement with the community and those experiencing homelessness.

Council Member Leslie Pool voted in favor but initially expressed trepidation in the hiring because she said it felt like the role of the consultant had not yet been fleshed out. She also said she was hesitant because City Council was still trying to “square up” what happened with Lori Pampilo Harris, the former homelessness czar who abruptly left her post in October after a month on the job. Harris’ hire had been hyped up by officials for the better part of 2019.


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