Mayor’s office takes new action to reduce homelessness

Jose Gonzalez

As downtown Austin’s waistline expands beyond the belt of I-35 — a symptom of the city’s exponential growth — the issue of homelessness has been ever-growing. Pressure from all sides forces the city to seek the near impossible: a solution that works for everyone. 

The sometimes-contradictory needs of downtown’s homeless population and businesses located near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on 500 East Seventh St. has prompted the City of Austin’s Innovation Office on Fourth Street to collaborate with several entities in the downtown area to aid the homeless. Between complex issues such as mental illness and drug addiction, their solution was to create street teams to assist individuals on a more personal level.

Paul Hayes has frequented the ARCH on and off in the last four years and has struggled with homelessness since 2010. Hayes said the ARCH has been a big help in his recovery from alcoholism and has given him peace of mind.

“When you start drinking, it starts (to) take a heavy toll and it ruined me,” Hayes said. “I was fortunate that the ARCH gave me something to grab onto. I’d say I’ve improved, but when things start to feel hopeless, what keeps me going is knowing I at least have a place to sleep, and that’s a real blessing.”

In June 2016, Kerry O’Connor, chief innovation officer for the City of Austin, teamed up with Downtown Austin Alliance to initiate what is called the Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST). The program is still on its test run, but its purpose is to tackle different problems that lead to homelessness.

“We have two community health paramedics, two mental behavioral counselors, two Austin police officers and one downtown community court case manager,” O’Connor said.

Because each agency oversees different sides to homelessness, O’Connor said it is difficult for HOST to assess how much overall progress they make or what the specific causes are to the issue. However, the benefit of cross-referencing data is that they do find gaps where their efforts can improve.

“We would find that there are certain patterns that make bridging the gap into services difficult,” O’Connor said. “Someone with an addiction may go into a 90-day treatment program, but once they leave to enter a longer-term program there’ll be a couple of days where there’s no housing for them. That’s a gap.”

In order to fill in those gaps, O’Connor said they look to local shelters such as ARCH and create community teamwork. Mitchell Gibbs, executive director of homelessness services nonprofit Front Steps, said new programs have been implemented to address prominent issues of homelessness that were previously ignored.

“We created a medical program that directly connects with the homeless that are in hospitals in order to attend to their ongoing medical needs,” Gibbs said. “Otherwise they may be discharged back into the streets.”

Though local businesses and their employees don’t want to appear indifferent to the struggles of homeless people, some say they still have a fear of being harassed if nothing is done. 

“I’ve been assaulted several times, (so have) my co-workers,” said Ashley Avey, the owner of Smoking Caterpillar, a pipe shop on Sixth Street. “There’s no way around talking about it without appearing to have disdain for the homeless. We want things to get better, but there’s backlash to honesty as well.”

There has been a significant decrease in homelessness over the last year, but there is still a visible homeless population that some property owners say is unappealing to their businesses. Gibbs said this sentiment hints at a larger societal problem. 

“The visibility and the fact that we have homeless people in our community and our society should make us all feel uncomfortable,” Gibbs said. “With additional resources and more community effort, that would be a big step in eliminating homelessness from our street view.”