Austin officials are moving to establish a new stand-alone Homeless Strategy Office to better focus the city's work with the local unhoused community.

The reorganization, effective Dec. 4, will also come with the promotion of David Gray as Austin's permanent homeless strategy officer. Gray took over that role on an interim basis following the resignation of his predecessor, Dianna Grey, in late September.

The breakdown

Today, the city's homeless strategy division operates within Austin Public Health. The upcoming spinoff of that division into its own new office comes after a recent review of Austin's homeless strategy determined the current structure "does not effectively respond to this critical priority," interim City Manager Jesús Garza said.

“While the Homeless Strategy Division was embedded within one department, the initiatives to address homelessness span multiple departments and require focused coordination,” Garza wrote in a Nov. 20 memo to city officials. “Consequently, I am establishing a stand-alone Homeless Strategy Office to serve as a focal point for addressing homelessness comprehensively, strategically, and compassionately.”

The stand-alone Homeless Strategy Office will handle:
  • The city's tens of millions of dollars in homeless service contracts
  • Operations at city-owned and -operated homeless shelters
  • City and community collaborations to make more housing available for those experiencing homelessness, including partnerships through the Austin/Travis County Homelessness Response System
  • Local, state and federal partnerships
  • Public space management, including cleanups and encampment closures
  • Homeless response fundraising with local businesses and philanthropists
  • City communications on homelessness
The revamped Homeless Strategy Office will mainly operate from city administrative offices in East Austin and include 36 staff positions, seven of which are now vacant, according to the city.

The move isn't expected to have any immediate impact on Austin's homeless response spending.

According to officials

Garza said the change will allow the city to better monitor outcomes related to its homeless service contracts, including data collection, and take on "proactive communication strategies" about the city's work.

The update stems from the review Garza launched in June that was led by Gray.

“As a city, our goal is to set the standard for innovative and strategic approaches to addressing homelessness and strengthening partnerships with the broad base of stakeholders who care about and invest in this issue,” Gray said in a statement. “Creating this stand-alone office and positioning it to marshal resources from many fronts is a strong indicator of the commitment and dedication of city leaders to helping people experiencing homelessness and to provide them with hope and help when they need it most.”

Mayor Kirk Watson said he believes the new office will bring a "far better managed effort with greater coordination" that he's been looking for since taking office.

"I’ve said multiple times last year and since January that I inherited a need to shake up city hall and get better administration over services that dominate our day to day. This council, the [city] manager and the manager’s team have been doing that," he said in a statement. "This is a good example. One of my complaints from the start has been a lack of coordination regarding homeless services, a failure to focus on how best to achieve desired outcomes instead of just talking about how much money we want to spend and, in part because of the lack of managerial coordination, an inability to account for and assess fully whatever the outcomes were."

Also of note

In addition to organizational changes, Garza also said the new structure will support an upcoming "joint independent assessment" of homeless services provided through Austin, Travis County, Central Health, Integral Care, The University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School and other community partners.

Watson recently told Community Impact he supported the city taking on a review of homeless strategy spending and outcomes, and on Nov. 21 said the shakeup will tie into such efforts.

"This coordination will work hand in glove with the performance review in which we can analyze the purpose of actions, including the purpose of our multiple contracts, the results of those actions and how to better get the results we want," Watson said. "The bottom line is to assure a clear purpose for our actions, coordinate the management of those actions and fully, transparently and accountably grade the outcomes."

A city spokesperson said further details on the process and an "active procurement" for that work aren't currently available.

Some context

The homeless strategy update comes near the end of a year that saw Austin leaders concentrate on expanding shorter-term shelter options, including:Additionally, Austin is now reviewing new options for management at the city's pair of bridge shelters off I-35, Northbridge and Southbridge. A solicitation for shelter operators closed Nov. 16, and a list of respondents wasn't available as of press time.