APD, partners work to address needs of homeless

Catherine Marfin

The Austin Police Department and its partners have been working since June 1 to assess the needs of the homeless community through their pilot program, the Homelessness Outreach Team.

Scheduled to end Sept. 30, HOST is comprised of six members from APD, the City of Austin Community Court, Austin-Travis County EMS, the Downtown Austin Alliance and Austin Travis County Integral Care.

The Austin Downtown Alliance served as the “catalyst” for the initiative after seeing similar programs in surrounding cities and bringing the idea to APD members in early April, said Bill Brice, Austin Downtown Alliance vice president. Soon after, APD and the Austin Downtown Alliance partnered with three other organizations to create the pilot program. 

The program includes two APD officers, two behavioral health specialists, one paramedic and one outreach social worker.

“Our role in this has been the convener,” Brice said. “We got right in the middle and said ‘APD, you can’t do this alone.’ We needed to do this now and not be sitting here a year later without any solutions.”

Modeled on similar programs based in Houston and San Antonio, HOST has focused on using existing resources to address the needs of the community without creating new jobs or spending additional funds. HOST members travel on foot in the downtown Austin area from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday to assess needs. The team provides services such as medical treatments, connects individuals with family members and finds them housing or shelter.

HOST is working to build a case for policy changes and secure funding for a long-term initiative. In this pilot stage, their effort is focused on data analysis in order to assess the most immediate needs of the homeless community.

Austin Travis County Integral Care, which provides services to individuals living with brain-based disorders, has reached out to over 230 members of the homeless community through HOST’s efforts.

“We work hard to improve the lives of anyone with mental disorders,” said Anne Nagelkirk, director of communications and engagement for ATCIC. “We have been able to meet most of the individual needs, including medical assessments, connecting people to shelter and housing, providing general medical care and medical supplies, connecting to them to treatment programs and things of that nature.”

Austin-Travis County EMS has focused on reducing emergency transports and ER usage, since many of the homeless use these services for minor medical emergencies or medical conditions that would be better managed by a long-term care physician, EMS Captain Darren Noak said. Additionally, EMS has been working to advise the team on which members of the homeless community should receive priority when it comes to assigning housing units.

“If we could get everyone into a housing unit, we would, but we have to prioritize,” Noak said. “[EMS] can provide updated medical records that help determine who should have priority for housing. While [EMS] doesn’t decide who gets housing and who doesn’t, medical vulnerability is a big part of that, so we’re working to help in that way.”

At the end of the pilot period, HOST plans to analyze information collected this summer and create more long-term programs based on its successful initiatives.

“We think we know everything we need to know but we go into things finding out later that maybe it didn’t work out exactly how we thought,” Brice said. “This is how social innovation works — you test, retest and reiterate, so you can come out with the best product.”