Housing aimed at homeless, at-risk

City makes a move toward permanent supportive housing

The City of Austin has made it a goal to increase the number of permanent supportive housing units available to the chronically homeless and other people who face multiple barriers to finding stable homes. The city could make a substantial investment in affordable housing in the near future.

An evolving strategy

The Austin City Council approved a resolution March 25, 2010, directing the city manager to devise a strategy to add 350 PSH units by the end of 2014. Staff reports indicate 350 units would cost $21.57 million in one-time capital expenditures, $3 million in annual rental subsidies and $4.13 million in annual service funding. According to the city, there are 238 units in the pipeline, meaning they have been at least partially funded, and 151 of those units are currently occupied.

PSH is defined as permanent housing for individuals with multiple barriers in finding housing, such as disabilities, criminal history, addiction and chronic homelessness. PSH units offer access to food pantries, counselors, case workers, health care, public transportation and other tools.

"We are working with local landlords in the private and [the] nonprofit sector to still account for security and safety, but to use background check tools that don't screen out everyone just because they had a prior conviction," said Ann Howard, executive director of End Community Homelessness Coalition.

The City of Austin's planning and policy manager for the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, Kelly Nichols, said Austin has historically located much of the affordable housing east of I-35.

"In the past 10 years, what we as a community have started to talk about is do we want to continue to concentrate poverty and to put all the affordable housing where we have always had it," Nichols said. "Aren't there reasons why we would want to have affordable housing in areas that are higher-income, that have more access to better schooling and other opportunities?"

PSH location strategy

Austin Neighborhood Council President Steve Aleman is part of the committee recently formed by the city to make recommendations on a siting plan. He said there has been concern among some members about safety and property values should affordable housing be located in their neighborhoods.

"Newly constructed, affordable housing that is well-maintained does not negatively affect home values unless you're adding it to an area that already has a high concentration of poverty," said Elizabeth Mueller, a professor of community and regional planning at The University of Texas.

Poorly maintained structures can negatively affect property values, regardless of whether it is affordable housing. A lack of affordable housing can be a detriment a neighborhood as well, Mueller said.

"For the past 50–60 years, we've tended to put residential in one area and commercial in another area to the extent that we often make it very difficult for people who work at the retail establishments to live near where they work," Mueller said.

The committee is expected to present recommendations on a framework to decide the location of future affordable housing to the Community Development Commission.

Economic benefits of PSH

According to a Denver study conducted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in 2006, average costs for detox, incarceration, emergency room visits, and inpatient and outpatient medical care decreased dramatically after subjects entered permanent supportive housing.

For example, the average cost of incarceration pre-entry was $1,798 per year, compared with $427 post-entry. Emergency room visit costs went down from $5,256 to $3,452 and from $10,373 to $1,641 for detox.

"For many public institutions—not just the city, although the city is certainly one—when you're looking at chronic users of public systems like hospitals and jails and EMS, PSH can really offer a more cost-effective, not to mention more human, solution to those issues," Nichols said.

How to measure success

Since the city-initiated PSH program is so new, there are not a clear set of criteria laid out to determine the efficacy of implementation. City Health and Human Services planner Dawn Perkins said there are two interns from UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs working on an evaluation tool.

"Because the strategy was implemented in 2010, we have a little while to go to make sure we have enough data," Perkins said. "So all of those things are being pulled together now. "

She said to evaluate the program to any degree of accuracy, it would be necessary to have data from two full years after implementation. City staff is waiting for the results of the budget process to determine how the evaluation will be conducted.

Walter Moreau, executive director of the homeless housing assistance nonprofit agency Foundation Communities, said data is important, but individual stories of residents are the most powerful indicators of success.

"We can share all that data, and sometimes the funders do want to get into the weeds of the technical side of the projects, but what we really have tried to do well is tell the story of our residents," Moreau said.

A PSH resident's story

Dalton Duffie does not recall exactly what year it was when he ended up on the streets. He had spent decades abusing alcohol and drugs: marijuana, pills, cocaine and, eventually, crack.

Duffie spent years drifting from crack house to crack house, eventually making his home on the streets after a crack house he had been living in burned down. He checked himself into rehab at the Salvation Army and stayed for two years and three months. He needed a place to stay once he left rehab, so with the help of a caseworker, he made his home in a Foundation Communities permanent supportive housing unit.

"That's why what Foundation Communities does is so awesome," Duffie said. "It's priceless because once you get straight, or once you try and straighten out your life, if you have nowhere to go to live, then most of them wind up back on the street."

Duffie has a steady job working for Salvation Army and has been sober for five years and four months.

Editor's note: The interns working on the evaluation tool are from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, not the LBJ School of Public Policy. The story has been changed to reflect this.


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