The Austin Police Department is changing its approach when it comes to dealing with homelessness by starting a new outreach program, targeting two areas in which those experiencing homelessness congregate.
Next week, officers will start patrolling Austin streets, working to understand why individuals are experiencing homelessness. The department is focusing its efforts on two neighborhoods – West Campus and downtown.
“So, right now we are right in front of the Salvation Army in close proximity to the Austin Police Department, and this area primarily is the area where most homeless individuals congregate to not only access shelter services but also access resources,” says Darilynn Cardona-Beiler with Austin Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC).
ATCIC is contributing two mental health counselors to the outreach team who will work alongside police officers and others to do assessments and identify gaps in services. The initiative represents a shift in APD’s overall approach to addressing homelessness, says APD Commander Patrick Cochran.
“Traditionally, we just would arrest as many as we could,” Cochran says, usually for misdemeanors like panhandling. “We would get back out, we would fill up another paddy wagon, take them to jail as the first group’s getting out of jail.”
Cochran says he’s learned that the department can’t arrest its way out of the problem. This year, the city saw a 20 percent rise in its homeless population, with more than 2,100 people sleeping on the street on any given day. Cochran modeled the new program after a similar effort by Houston police, which has seen success in connecting people with services and housing. Cochran is hoping to bridge that gap in Austin.
“This team will be able to go to the people, so to speak, and try and figure out, why are you out here, and what can we do to get you off the street?” he says.
The pilot program is scheduled to run for the next three months. After that, Cardona-Beiler of ATCIC says they hope to expand to other neighborhoods.
“What we want to see is a reduction in unnecessary use in emergency services, more access to care, and definitely a reduction of incarcerations,” she says.