Less than a year into his first term back at City Hall, Mayor Kirk Watson has been part of several key decisions related to Austin's response to homelessness.

Watson has said he hopes to reform aspects of the support system and planning around the city's unhoused population. Following some recent changes in strategy under a new City Council and interim city manager, Community Impact sat down with Watson in early October to discuss his views on the system since returning to local government.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you sum up Austin’s homeless response right now?

Addressing the needs of those that are living homeless in Austin is not as simple as a lot of people think, which is as simple as saying, "Let’s enforce the camping ban."

You can tell somebody, "You can’t camp there," but you can’t tell them where to go. ... And we don’t have enough mental health facilities to meet some of the needs, and we’re not getting as much prosecution on some of the things that we have in the downtown area to meet the needs.

There’s not a simple solution.

I think the system got broken. And I said that during the campaign, and I’ve said it a lot since coming into office, that we focused appropriately on getting more permanent supportive housing in the community, and I believe we need more permanent supportive housing, have been supportive of more permanent supportive housing. But that became almost the sole focus, even to the point that if you move forward on things like emergency shelter beds, that somehow you’re doing something wrong.

What we’ve attempted to do as part of fixing the system is focused on the whole continuum. More on prevention. More on emergency shelter beds. More on rapid rehousing. And ultimately, some additional permanent supportive housing. But the fixing it has been more of a political, partisan type situation than people would have expected.

We’re making enormous progress. It’s not as easily thing because some things just take more time; it’s been eight months now, nine months. But if you look at, for example, what we’ve done with the Marshalling Yard, that’ll be 300 beds and maybe more. ... We’ve saved The Salvation Army building and that will provide bed space. What we’ve done at both the Northbridge and Southbridge shelters. What I was able to accomplish with the state of Texas on the $65 million.

Are city resources and funding dedicated to homelessness at an appropriate level?

Yes and no.

The yes is, if I didn’t think the money that we were putting into it was the right amount of money, I wouldn’t have been in favor of doing it. But I want to make sure that it’s being done the right way, and I think that it would be appropriate for us to take a step back and review, in some detail, all the money that’s currently involved in that process.

There have been some recent calls for a spending review or audit on homelessness. Do you expect that might be coming soon?


I am supportive of us getting our arms around all the money that’s been spent, being spent to make sure that we’re allocating in the right way because it is something we need to get right, and there’s a lot of money going into it.

Some people like to use reviews of money as a weapon. I don’t think this ought to be used as a weapon. I think we ought to be doing this on a routine basis on anything that has this kind of expenditure, this kind of exposure and this kind of passion behind it just to make sure we’re doing right. But I do support and believe we ought to be reviewing it in detail.

Between recent shelter expansions and the supportive housing pipeline, do you believe the city is continuing on the right path?

We need to have a focus on prevention, we need to have a focus on emergency shelters, we need to have a focus on rapid rehousing, we need to have a focus on mental health.

There’s a ... continuum, and what you’ll find is if we’re doing things the right way, [for example], preventative, well that prevents people from ending up in homelessness so you don’t have them living homeless. If we’re doing right with the services with emergency shelter, you will see people get permanently out of homelessness as a result of that.

What I want us to do differently than I feel like we’ve done in the past is focus on a variety of aspects that meet the needs of people in a variety of ways, because people are different, in order to address those living homeless in our community. And not get us so focused on one or two things that, what we’ve done then is we can’t see anything else.

How would you respond to folks who think things are moving too slowly or say there’s not enough visible progress being made?

Progress is being made. And if we ever get to a point where ... we’re going to declare, "We have succeeded," there will still be people that folks will see under overpasses, in parks. We are not, and I just don’t believe that we will ever be able to say that success is defined by "We have no one living homeless in Austin, Texas."

We will make progress, but this is a multilayered social problem and not one you can just click your fingers and say, "We don’t have people living homeless anymore." It’s also not one where you can say, "I can enforce a ban on homelessness, or even a camping ban on homelessness, and we won’t see anybody living homeless." Even before the camping ban was done away with, you still saw people on the streets and outside ... people were still visible in that regard. Maybe more visible now because of what happened and what I think our approach had been after that happened.

Part of what my goal has been is, as part of enforcing the camping ban, is to be able to do it where you do have a place for people to go. ... When we say to somebody, "You can’t camp there," we’re going to disrupt this camp, and you have no place for them to go, they’re just going to camp someplace else.

So one of the things we’ve looked to do is create a situation where there is a humane approach to this, where there’s a place for them to go. And it’s working.

What can people expect to see from the city on homelessness initiatives in the year ahead?

A couple things jump in mind. One is to see an opening of what was the old Salvation Army space. I think the second thing that people could have an expectation of what they could look for is an increase in the number of people at the Marshalling Yard. The third would be that we will start seeing aspects of that $65 million from the state being utilized—keep in mind ... a portion of that is also for housing stabilization, which is part of that continuum I talk about. That’s the Caritas and the LifeWorks money.

I know that there’s an impatience. ... This council has been in office since January. ... While that may seem like a long time to some, righting this ship doesn’t happen overnight. You have to get money into places, you have to get things moving, and I think we’re moving at a pretty rapid clip. But yeah, it’s not fast enough for me either.

The other thing I think you should expect to see is probably some sort of review of all of the money and the spending, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that doesn’t result in at least some debate about how we allocate money and where the money flows through, things of that nature.

The 2021 homelessness summit and formation of Finding Home ATX [a $515 million community plan to house thousands of people] was before your time in office, but as of today how do you view that initiative and the city’s role in the collaborative?

I’ve been disappointed that it almost feels as though the city is an afterthought.

I have been a little surprised at the self-appointed nature of some of the folks that are involved and how that puts them in a position of being the sole authority, in some instances. That’s been a disappointment, and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s probably good for us to review how money gets spent and where it goes.

Is there room for the city to take more of a leadership or oversight role in Finding Home ATX, and do you expect to see that happen?

Yes. ... I think that’s part of the reason to do a review.

What would you not want to be misrepresented on the topic of homeless strategy in Austin?

This is not a simple, all-or-nothing, easy or hard approach. We’re dealing with human lives and dealing with people who are not at their best, to say the least. This is not something you can just say, "I’ve got a simple answer." It may be simple the way it gets said, but in practicality it’s not.

Because it’s not easy, we’re not always going to get it right. And I’m willing to try and fail and refigure what I’m doing so that we have a bias toward action on this. And that’s what I’m bringing to it, is a bias toward action.

But not everything’s going to work. And not everything may even make sense if you don’t know all the reasons I might be trying something. But my promise is that if it doesn’t work or if I see that it’s not working, it’s not going to bother me to say, "Wow, that didn’t work" and try something else.