Debate over a proposed intergovernmental review of Austin-area homeless services is continuing this month, weeks after City Council members first voted to move it ahead.

The background

Beginning late last year, city officials developed a plan to bring on a third-party consultant for an evaluation of Austin, Travis County, Integral Care and Central Health's responses to homelessness in the area.

As originally laid out, the city-led initiative would have cost up to $2 million overall broken up as follows:
  • $1 million from the city of Austin
  • $400,000 from Travis County
  • $400,000 from Central Health
  • $200,000 from Integral Care
Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. was chosen over one other option for the work through an informal solicitation, according to city staff.

What's happening

Despite an initial belief that all involved parties would remain involved, Travis County commissioners voted against participating in favor of having staff take on an internal assessment to be shared later with other partners. Central Health also edited its agreement with the city scaling back some aspects of McKinsey's review.

County commissioners and several community members have also expressed some concern with the proposed price tag of the undertaking, and using McKinsey given some negative perceptions of the firm.

Those sentiments were once again shared during a Feb. 7 City Council session that covered aspects of Austin's homeless response. Several attendees criticized the process behind the proposed review and urged the city to redirect funding toward local homeless services instead of an external audit.

"I think that money would be much better suited for people who actually want to help, who in good faith want to give resources to people and help," said Ricky Leiva, who said he’s been experiencing housing insecurity for years. "I’ve lived in Austin my whole life, and I shouldn’t have to worry about living on the street.”

Soon after, interim City Manager Jesús Garza told council he still believes the McKinsey-led approach is an important step to improve coordination and solidify a "multijurisdictional effort" on homelessness.

"We have a fragmented system that doesn’t pull the pieces together, and the intent of getting these partners together is so that we have a cohesive approach, understanding how to be much more effective at what it is we do—not just with our governmental partners, but obviously those private nonprofits that do valuable work in this community," he said.

Garza also said Travis County's exit from the review could mean Austin ends up paying more than the $1 million city officials originally expected to reserve for the effort.

What's next

Elected officials said they had some reservations over proceeding without Travis County's involvement and over using the city's limited federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act on the plan.

Council member Ryan Alter also said he now doesn't want to see the proposal advance without another round of council review given changes to the process since mid-January, and to reconsider the value of the work overall.

"If we are only ... primarily looking at city contracts, [in 2020] we had the Poppe report, which, that was the role of that report, was to look at all the city contracts related to homelessness," Alter told Community Impact. "Why I want us to be able to bring this back is because I want to see what the scope is. And if the scope is more internal-looking, we already did that once. And so is it worth another million dollars here just a few years later?"

Given council's January sign-off on negotiating a deal with McKinsey, city staff are not required to bring the item back before an agreement is completed. But Alter said he still hopes to see the plan come back for more council consideration after staff had agreed to further review if circumstances changed.

For now, the Homeless Strategy Office continues to work on the proposal and will discuss the outlook for more council input.

"Staff is moving with a sense of urgency to finalize negotiations with McKinsey and commence the comprehensive review, which will identify actionable solutions for all partners to make homelessness rare, brief and nonreoccurring. Additionally, staff will visit with the interim city manager regarding any additional discussion or consideration by council," a city spokesperson said.

In other news

The early February council meeting also included a look at the operations of Austin's Marshalling Yard shelter. The temporary 300-bed facility in Southeast Austin was opened last year using more than $9 million in one-time ARPA funds to supplement the city's lacking shelter capacity.

The space has served nearly 600 clients since ramping up last summer, but city leaders have yet to determine whether to continue operating the facility for more than one year.

Community advocates joined many current and former Marshalling Yard clients who relayed mixed reviews from the shelter Feb. 7, with many sharing negative experiences.

Clients highlighted issues with sanitary conditions in common spaces, restrooms, showers; disappointment in limited and nonnutritious food offerings including fast food; problems with health care access; contentious interactions with staff; and unclear policies surrounding discharges from the shelter.

“I’ve been affected by unsanitary conditions making me sickly over and over. The living area not being mopped; furniture, couches, tables and bathrooms going unsanitized; employees doing unsanitary acts,” said Victoria Marshall, one of several clients testifying on shelter conditions. “This is unacceptable. Monitoring staff are not staying in their proper place to watch over us to make sure we and our belongings are safe, and things have been stolen.”

Council members and Homeless Strategy Officer David Gray went on to discuss many of those problems during the meeting, and Gray said both city staff and contracted employees with nonprofit Endeavors aim to respond to any reported issues.

Gray said changes related to the client discharge process are in the works, that restroom and shower facilities including Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible spaces are being maintained, and that food service at the Marshalling Yard could soon be revamped to offer healthier options.

By the numbers

As of mid-January, the Marshalling Yard had welcomed 577 total clients and had reached its 300-person capacity. Gray reported that clients are spending an average of just over six weeks at the facility.

Of the faciliy's total client count, about 5.55% were permanently housed or relocated to another facility, while nearly 43% ended up returning to homelessness or leaving to an unknown destination.

Of those who've left the shelter, Gray said 11% were "positive exits" on the way to more stable housing opportunities.

Over the coming months, he said he hopes more clients can reach stable housing after departing from the Marshalling Yard.

“I always want this number to be greater. This is typically what we see nationally for this style of shelter, is around a 10% successful move rate from a congregate setting into a housing setting," he said. "We’re on par with that national standard. That being said, I want to blow that national standard out of the water.”
Marshalling Yard outcomes. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Marshalling Yard outcomes. (Courtesy city of Austin)