Mayor Steve Adler, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and several experts and advocates met on-campus Thursday evening to discuss solutions for homelessness in Austin.
During the panel at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, panelists suggested solutions such as expanding resources and reaffirming the dignity of those who are homeless by talking to them and connecting with them.
Steven Pedigo, event moderator and the director of the LBJ School of Public Affairs Urban Lab, said Austin has roughly 2,255 people who are homeless on any given night in 2019.
Adler said one of the major starting points to help people who are homeless is to get them a home as soon as possible, which would increase their access to health services and employment opportunities and also decrease their time spent in jail.
“Any society is judged by how it treats and respects and supports the least fortunate among them,” Adler said. “It’s important because this is a challenge that we can actually do something about, that we can actually solve. If you can just get them into a home for a month or two or three, those folks will get back. They are better and safer — and our community is safer — if they’re in a safe place (rather) than if they’re in the woods somewhere.”
Manley said because of a recent ordinance which allows people to publicly camp on sidewalks, APD’s role changed from enforcing camping restrictions to making sure communities are educated when it comes to where people are allowed to camp publicly.
“(We are) really trying to help those that find themselves in a condition of homelessness and realize that police are not just a source of enforcement but also a resource, as everyone else on this panel is,” Manley said.
LBJ clinical professor Sherri Greenberg said along with making sure public health agencies give people who are homeless efficient care, an important aspect of developing and implementing solutions to homelessness is to make sure these solutions are paid for by state funding, federal funding and nonprofits. She said this funding will ensure that shelters and other resources are not only established but operated properly.
Chris Harris, a community advocate for the anti-mass incarceration organization Homes Not Handcuffs, said public safety would increase if mental health professionals were the first responders to reports of people who are homeless rather than police officers.
“We’ve answered the problems with police and prisons, and not only is that not improving our public safety, it comes at extreme costs both for our whole community and the people we’re arresting and jailing,” Harris said. “With mental health first response, it’s a recognition that we have a lot of folks in our community who have mental health challenges, both housed and unhoused, and that police are not always the best response.”