Austin homelessness must remain a priority

Josephine MacLean

While you probably spent the weekend avoiding the rain indoors, for Austin’s significant homeless population, the tropical storm was notably more challenging. According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s 2017 Annual Point in Time Homeless Count, there were 834 unsheltered persons in the city of Austin on any given night as of January.

Although students have almost daily encounters with homeless or transient individuals, our University community rarely engages in pertinent discussions about their circumstances.  Such conversations are often fueled by fear or safety concerns. While those discussions are legitimate, the stigma that accompanies such fears could be abated by building a better understanding within the UT student body of the nature of homelessness in Austin.

Despite the city’s subtle attempts to renovate downtown with un-sleepable-benches and active alleys, the homeless are fairly visible, especially around UT. In ECHO’s count, City Council District 9 (where UT is located) had the highest homeless density in Austin. In District 9 alone, 397 homeless people were counted as unsheltered. 

“The bottom line is, we’re housing a lot of people every day, but we aren’t housing enough because the need is great,” said ECHO’s executive director Ann Howard. 

Homelessness in Austin is a manifold issue; there is no one silver bullet that will cure it. The underlying challenge is capacity. There’s simply not enough space available. When there is space, it is often unaffordable and inaccessible. 

In 2016, ECHO projected there would be 620 unserved households in need of rapid re-housing and 744 unserved households in need of permanent supportive housing. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department recently identified five possible community centers, one of which could be chosen to use as a temporary transitional shelter. 

“It’s like an overflowing bathtub — we have to find a way to turn down the tap and/or let some water out. That’s what this initiative would allow us to do,” Howard said. 

 Then there’s the challenge of health care. In Austin, 62.8 percent of our transient population had been to the emergency room, 33 percent within six months in 2016, and almost 40 percent reported being taken in an ambulance. Additionally, there is no way to account for costs of palliative care because ECHO has not been able to identify how many transient people are in need of end-of-life care. 

These numbers seem obvious, but the drain on taxpayer dollars is severe, especially when the “public health cost avoidance,” or what is saved in taxpayer dollars after a person has been permanently housed, is 179.7 thousand dollars annually. 

Even when working with a non-profit, many transient individuals face barriers to housing. Some may have a criminal background, while others who use government vouchers or carry debt may experience income discrimination. Some have double jeopardy.

Lastly, many transient individuals cannot afford to trust in the services available. Although many downtown were reluctant to do an interview, one woman I met under I-35 and Concordia agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. She told me she had moved to Austin originally in 2015 with the promise of a new job, but things hadn’t worked out. Today she feels too mistrusting and fearful of shelters to seek them out. 

Austin Police Department recently partnered with downtown nonprofits to station two police officers outside the ARCH for a month, in the hope of dispersing crowds and preventing drug dealing in the area. 

“I used to go by (transient people), maybe hand them some coins. Now I’m here.” she said. “Just have some compassion,” she repeated. Perhaps with these new initiatives, there will be space for those like this interviewee to go where they feel safe. 

MacLean is an advertising and geography junior from Austin. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @maclean_josie.