Outreach program tries to tackle homelessness around campus

Michelle Zhang

The Homelessness Outreach Street Team, an Austin Police Department program that helps the homeless population in the downtown and West Campus areas, was approved a one-year extension by City Council on Oct. 1 after a four-month pilot program.

The team aims to address homelessness by working on the street, identifying homeless people in need, providing timely intervention and matching them with resources such as housing and mental health services before they get into a state of crisis or crime. The team is comprised of two APD officers, three case workers from Austin Travis County Integral Care and one paramedic from the community health program.

“We basically go out into the community and interact with homeless people, trying to encourage them to engage in services,” said Shelly Borton, an APD officer who works full time for the HOST program. “Our ultimate goal is to get them to complete an assessment for housing. We address mental health issues, we address employment issues. We try to provide them with assistance for getting identifications. Some people are just looking for bus tickets to go back to where they came from.”

HOST Austin was modeled after similar initiatives in surrounding cities, such as the Homeless Outreach Team in Houston.

Michelle Roddy, a parent of a UT student and a member of SafeHorns who lives in Houston, did a ride along with the Homeless Outreach Team in Houston and learned how they run the program and work with homeless people.

“HOT has helped to train HOST and remains available as a resource.” Roddy said in an email. “HOT has a huge impact in Houston.”

UT parents are also trying to connect with APD and fuel the process of creating a  safer campus.

“We are so thankful [for the extension of the program],” said Joell McNew, a founding member of SafeHorns. “It’s such a
great program.”

So far, the team has encountered and documented around 400 homeless people in Austin, but according to Borton, it’s just a small part of the solution to improve the safety around
UT campus.

“We have a large [homeless] population especially around the West Campus area, some of them aged out of the foster care system.” Borton said. “We have a large percentage of people that really don’t want help … Sometimes you can’t help people unless they really want it.”