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Despite Decline in Homeless Numbers, Many Still Seek Refuge Under Austin's Bridges

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
Austin's homeless population numbers are decreasing, according to an annual count.

The homeless population in Austin is getting smaller.

At least that's what the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) found in its annual count of people who are homeless last month. But the population is still in the hundreds.

One of the reasons the non-profit is citing for the decline is a small but steady increase in affordable housing in Austin.

On cold and wet days, and also on super hot days, council member Ann Kitchen gets furious that Austin still has hundreds of people taking refuge under bridges. "We shouldn't be putting up with this in our city," Kitchen says. "It's not right."

There are some Austin groups who are not "putting up with it," as Kitchen says. They are steadily increasing the number of housing units available for people who are homeless.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
This year's count had about 450 volunteers. The count goes on from 3 to 8 in the morning. The idea is to count the people that seek refuge in tents, under trees, under bridges all over Austin and Travis County.

About 1,300 people were able to secure housing last year.

So, if more affordable housing is the answer, one constant challenge facing affordable housing builders is that building for people who are homeless often comes with a fight.

Often the fight comes from neighborhood associations.

Austinite Mark Chase is one neighbor who is worried about some new affordable housing units that are being built in his community. Ten percent of those units, Chase learned, are reserved for people who are homeless. That worried him, so last month he took his concerns to the Austin City Council. "How do we know that crime is not going to go up in our neighborhood?" Chase asked the council. That was just one of a long list of concerns from Chase.

But even with the mistrust that comes from some neighbors, ECHO, the non-profit that does the annual count, estimates more people are housed now than in 2009, which means the homeless population in Austin has shrunk by almost one-third in that period of time.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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