Ending homelessness requires the whole community’s effort

Nathan Ryan

Let’s get one thing straight before we jump into this: Nobody wants to see people sleeping on the street. In the fury of our conversations about how to best address the challenge of homelessness in the City of Austin, I think we all too often forget that about those we disagree with.

The second thing I think many of us forget is that people experiencing homelessness also do not want to be sleeping on the street.

A few months ago, I was privileged to speak with a woman named Donna who’s been experiencing homelessness for the last five years. She’s 63, and often sleeps in her car with her dog, Pilaf. Donna became homeless as a result of an eminent domain eviction lawsuit and medical issues that kept her from working, which ultimately drained her bank account.

As I listened to Donna tell her story, I was struck by how many gaps she was identifying in the homeless experience.

For instance, if you’re homeless and you sleep on a friend’s sofa for a few days, you will likely no longer qualify for some benefits — you may have to start over again. Or other gaps, like the average homeless individual deals with up to seven different case workers. Each of those case workers has a different paper file describing their situation and details often don’t match up. Or that one of the most requested things from homeless individuals is a locker to store their stuff so they don’t lose important paperwork.

Or the big one — the average rent for an 864 square-foot apartment within Austin’s city limits is $1,437 as of October 2019.

Donna gets $670 a month in Social Security benefits. Not even enough to afford a security deposit, especially when you account for fines she’s received from being on the street and for medical debt.

These are all massive gaps, and each of them plays a part in grinding a person down to the point where they start to wonder if pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is even worth the effort.

As Austin Mayor Steve Adler expressed recently, if we want to adequately confront our homelessness challenge, we have to house these folks. That’s true, and we’ll need to reform our land use code to do it correctly.

But in order to truly address this, we need to admit collectively that it runs much deeper. That this is a challenge full of gaps and those gaps require all three sectors of Austin’s economy — public, private, nonprofit — to solve. It takes every business leader, every startup, every nonprofit leader, every elected and city official, every citizen.

The good news is that it’s already happening.

In early September, ICON, a private company that 3D prints houses, announced that they were going to partner with Community First! Village to build a new neighborhood for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Terrace at Oak Springs opened with 50 beds — 25 for homeless veterans, and 25 more for additional individuals experiencing homelessness — and a health clinic, employment and wellness services.

Finally, just this week, The Other Ones Foundation expanded opportunities to pay individuals experiencing homelessness $15 an hour to help clean up public parks, a suitable wage to help them get off the streets. The City of Austin approved $720,000 in funding to triple the program’s capacity.

These are great examples of cross-sector collaboration in support of the public good.

If we look at this solely as a challenge for the City of Austin, as a governmental entity, to “solve,” we miss an opportunity to be Texans and to be Austinites by solving this together. 

We don’t have to give in to anger and fear on this issue. These are gaps that, if filled and if coordinated, could have a real impact on real people like Donna.

This is our city. It’s on all of us to lead on these issues and show that collaboration between the private, public and nonprofit sectors can result in real change.

Ryan is a CEO of Blue Sky Partners and a commissioner for the City of Austin.