The new plan to expand permanent housing was developed during a March and April summit centered around unsheltered homelessness. That conference saw city officials, nonprofit representatives, business leaders and other community members commit to the goal of rehousing 3,000 people by April 2024. The summit plan has yet to be fully funded or see its overall housing framework mapped out, but the outline released from the summit set a deadline for the program’s first target of seeing 100 people rehoused by the end of June.
Matt Mollica, executive director of the nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, which oversees the Austin area's homelessness strategy, told Community Impact Newspaper in June that an appraisal of local rehousing efforts as of the summit plan’s June goal will not be immediately released July 1. Instead, ECHO plans to begin pulling rehousing data from the regional Homelessness Management Information System, the database used to track people experiencing homelessness and their connection with services, this week to prepare statistics and demographic information for public release.
Given a “lag” between the time service providers house someone and the time their data is officially logged in the HMIS, Mollica said a report on the success or failure of the summit plan’s first milestone will be coming out in mid-July.
“We made a commitment to ourselves to not jump the gun and start to talk about numbers before. We owe it to the providers who are doing this really hard work to make sure that they get their data in and everyone gets to put their right foot forward,” Mollica said June 24. “I really don’t know what the answer is around what the numbers are going to say, but I can tell you they’ll be ... accurate and transparent."
Lynn Meredith, who chaired the spring homelessness summit, said in late June that updates from area service providers have led her to be "very optimistic" about hitting the local target of 100 additional rehousings since the summit wrapped up.
"In talking with these groups, what they are telling me is that they are making progress," Meredith said. "It’s a tricky system. You’ve got nonprofits that are set up to do their reporting very easily; you have nonprofits who are underfunded who are trying to pull the data together. ... We’re building our post-summit organizations to respond, but they’re the ones on the ground doing work."
Whether the first benchmark has been reached, Meredith also credited summit stakeholders and others in the Austin-area community for what she sees as a shift in local engagement with homelessness strategy following the summit.
"If we are going to have an impact and change the way we do business in Austin, the way we address homelessness, we have to build out the system. So there’s systems thinking right now, whereas some people in our community were not understanding the system [before]," she said. "There are so many ways to enter homelessness. The positive is people are understanding there are so many exit ramps."
City representatives have also repeatedly stressed the need for buy-in across sectors to facilitate the new housing goals. Austin officials last month dedicated what could end up being more than $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act federal relief funds to allocations tied to the local homelessness crisis. However, like the summit plan itself, officials said the use of that block of money entirely on a homelessness strategy is dependent on other government entities and city players chipping in as well.
How Travis County decides to allocate its ARPA dollars, a debate currently playing out in the county Commissioners Court, will likely affect the scope of resources available to fund the summit plan. Regardless of how much money flows to local homeless service providers as part of the program, whether from government or the private and philanthropic sectors, Mollica said they must be ready to handle it.
“We want to be there to help provide the technical assistance and capacity building that’s going to be needed to drive this sort of investment,” he said. “Our responsibility is when people want to invest in the system, we need to help steward that investment in the right way.”
Camping enforcement continues
The summit plan’s release was accompanied from the start by the growing support for and eventual success of Proposition B in May. That measure’s camping ban ordinance led officials who largely defended or remained neutral on the city’s two-year decriminalization of public camping to evaluate more immediate shelter options this spring.
The city remains in the second phase of its four-month camping ban implementation that has police handing out written warnings or possible citations for violations and will move into its third phase from July 11-Aug. 7. That period will see citations issued to repeat offenders and arrests made if campers appear in dangerous areas. Beginning Aug. 8, police may arrest anyone camping publicly who was previously cited and did not relocate, according to the city.
In the wake of the proposition’s passage, council members also moved to consider various types of temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Responses to the idea of setting up sanctioned encampments in public spaces resulted in most of the dozens of initially suggested locations being dropped in the spring, although a handful of locations could still remain under consideration.
A report from City Manager Spencer Cronk due to City Council no later than July 1 is the next step in Austin's approach to studying shelter possibilities. Per council direction, an update on the build-out of “tiny home” structures to accommodate unsheltered residents on public or a community partner’s land is meant to be the focus of that overview. However, details on planning and launching any of those options in time for the final Proposition B enforcement phase also have yet to be shared.
In the meantime, Mollica said he has seen an increased number of Austinites experiencing homelessness seeking help while providers have “no place to offer them” without more shelter space or a full housing plan in place.
“The need to fund outreach and sort of housing navigation is something that’s kind of bubbled up as areas that we need to address pretty quickly with Prop B passing,” he said. “First and foremost trying to do as little harm as possible to people that are having a really traumatic event in their lives. ... The main focus has been, for us, trying to make sure we can get whatever services we can out to the community to support them while they’re going through this.”
One city program geared toward sheltering those currently living in unauthorized camps took its first visible step forward this spring. Austin's Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link program cleared an encampment located next to the Terrazas Branch Library on East Cesar Chavez Street in mid-June, filling several of the 75 units available at the city's Southbridge temporary shelter. That former hotel off I-35 in South Austin will also provide shelter to residents of at least three other high-priority encampments identified across town as the HEAL process moves forward.
“I think with the work that we did in the summit as well as the work that the HEAL initiative is doing ... this plan to begin to seriously impact the unsheltered population on the street has been pretty robust," Meredith said. "They have this lens of equity. They are using every tool in their toolkit; they are finding vouchers; they are finding places for people to go. Because if we don’t do anything ... everybody just goes back to the way it was two years ago, which is not acceptable.”