Homeless city residents say permanent housing is key

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless is the lone city-operated homeless shelter. n

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless is the lone city-operated homeless shelter. n

Image description
A refocused strategy
Austin’s homeless population to start off 2019 was roughly 5 percent greater than last year, according to a count conducted earlier this year, increasing the already urgent need for a community-coordinated effort to address the issue.

City leaders have shifted the strategy against homelessness, prioritizing a housing-first approach and relying more on case management. Along with transitioning the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless—the downtown city-owned homeless shelter—away from an emergency shelter, City Council committed to opening a new, city-owned shelter by the end of September, the first in 15 years.

However, some voices in the homeless community say emergency shelters such as the ARCH do little to fix the issue. Leonard Walker, who has experienced homelessness in Austin since June, said he would rather walk around the city all night than sleep in the ARCH or other shelter options, which he said, in his experience, are often dirty and riddled with drug use and violence.

“I don’t want to be anywhere near that stuff, so if it takes me sleeping on the streets every night to not go through that, I will,” Walker said. “I just want to be put in a place where I’m safe, my stuff is going to be safe and I don’t have to hurt anyone because they’re trying to hurt me.”

Thom Woodward has been homeless in Austin since 2010 and writes for The Challenger, a newspaper whose mission is to uplift and give a voice to the city’s underrepresented people. He agreed with Walker about the existing infrastructure and said housing is the key.

“Putting people in housing really changes an entire composition of a person,” Woodward said. “I’ve seen a person on the street, experiencing homelessness, using drugs, not eating properly, not sleeping properly. I’ve seen that type of individual be housed, and in six months you see them and you have to do a double take.”

City policymakers have acknowledged the need for more permanent housing options for those trying to exit homelessness. In an attempt to boost supply, Austin City Council in late February supported a resolution to loosen land-use rules to make it easier for developers to build deeply affordable and subsidized housing throughout Austin and specifically highlighted permanent supportive housing.

Woodward said he believes the city is making a “good-faith effort” to understand homelessness.

The lack of housing and shelter capacity for the growing homeless population has residual impact. Homeless encampments have multiplied, and in some cases, in high-risk areas along flood plains and stormwater drainage pipes. Ramesh Swaminathan, a managing engineer with Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, said the encampments result from dissatisfaction, similar to Walker and Woodward, over the city’s shelter options.

Swaminathan is leading a new effort to clear encampments that pose the highest risk to the occupants or the environment. The program, funded through fiscal year 2018-19 budget funds, requires homeless individuals at an encampment to receive at least a 72-hour notice prior to clean up, and to make an effort to connect those individuals to case management and ideally supportive housing.

One of the most visible consequences of low shelter and housing capacity is the uptick in panhandling. Mobile Loaves and Fishes CEO Alan Graham plans to kick off a new program by the end of summer to give would-be panhandlers carts and backpacks of ice cream and water to sell to people downtown. Graham said occupational licensing regulation has made it nearly impossible for homeless individuals to earn a living.

“The only remaining bastion of entrepreneurialism is the First Amendment right to beg,” he said.

A recent audit of Austin’s homelessness work lauded Austin’s effort but criticized the city for its coordination and lack of success metrics, such as the rate at which people were exiting or returning to homelessness.

City Council is preparing to hire what Austin Mayor Steve Adler referred to as a “homelessness czar” to oversee and improve the city’s strategy.

Amid the critiques, Walker, who grew up in Round Rock, said he still “loves Austin,” and will continue to live, and plans to find a home, here.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


MOST RECENT

On a nearly empty South Congress Avenue, a resident plays guitar March 25. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Projections showing major Austin metro job losses also predict significant re-employment by end of 2020

The president of the economic strategist firm said, unlike during the 2009 financial crash, there are no systemic issues in the economy.

(Courtesy Lighter Loads ATX)
In the midst of coronavirus pandemic, one Northwest Austin organization continues to provide hundreds of showers for city’s homeless

Local nonprofit Lighter Loads ATX continues to serve the homeless population despite the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Austin and Travis County's orders went into place March 25 and require residents to stay home for everything but essential travel. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Unprecedented local relief fund will send millions of tax dollars directly to vulnerable Austinites impacted by the coronavirus

City Council directed half the funds to be sent to organizations that can provide direct financial assistance to Austin's most vulnerable residents.

Austin City Hall (Christopher Neely/Community impact Newspaper)
Austin will appeal court ruling that halted the city’s land development code rewrite

The city's attorney said an appeal could take up to 12 months.

Party Barn on Guadalupe Street closed March 30 after more than 40 years in business. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Party Barn announces permanent closure after 42 years on Guadalupe Street

The drive-thru beer-and-wine store opened in 1978 just north of the University of Texas campus.

Laura Huffman has been named the new president and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. (Courtesy Austin Chamber of Commerce)
Laura Huffman named as new president and CEO of Austin Chamber of Commerce

Huffman previously worked as a regional director for Texas at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, and prior to that, she served as assistant city manager in Austin.

Abbott's order closes all state parks and historical sites effective 5 p.m. April 7. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
ROUNDUP: Parks closures for the Austin area

See the latest news about Austin-area parks closures in this Community Impact Newspaper roundup.

The Texas Workforce Commission's phone and online systems have been overwhelmed as measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus continue to have a crippling effect on the economy. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
More Texans have filed for unemployment in past three weeks than in all of 2019

For the second week in a row, more than 6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, according to federal data.

Chinese restaurant Old Thousand will be offering Easter Sunday take-out specials on April 12. (Courtesy Old Thousand)
Here are 13 restaurants offering Easter Sunday meals in Central Austin

Restaurants offering specials include Peached Tortilla, Stiles Switch and Old Thousand.

A photo of a finger-prick test being administered
Victory Medical now offers 10-minute coronavirus tests

The new finger-prick test gives results in a few minutes.

(Designed by Mel Stefka/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin-area health care centers receive more than $7 million from CARES Act

Three Austin-area nonprofit health care centers have been awarded federal grants totaling more than $7 million for coronavirus relief.

At an April 8 press conference, Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin Public Health interim health authority, said emergency backup medical facilities will open soon in case local hospitals are not able to provide enough space for coronavirus patients. (Courtesy ATXN)
Austin, Travis County officials planning for up to 1.7 million coronavirus cases, 9,000 deaths in metro

Emergency backup medical facilities will open in case local hospitals are not able to provide enough space for patients who contract the coronavirus.