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Homelessness Was A Contentious Issue In Austin Last Year. Here's What To Look Out For In 2020.

A homeless encampment in downtown Austin.
Julia Reihs

Homelessness was a controversial issue in Austin in 2019 – here's a timeline of all the developments – and it's not going away any time soon. With that in mind, here's a look at some issues and initiatives to keep an eye on this year.

Seeking Shelter

While the governor put pressure on the city to revise its rules, City Manager Spencer Cronk's office moved to find more immediate solutions to house people living on the streets in Austin. Council voted in June to buy land for a shelter at Bannister Lane and Ben White Boulevard, but city staff later shifted the focus on building out what's called permanent supportive housing and moved to retrofit properties – arguing it's faster and cheaper.

The city bought a Rodeway Inn at Oltorf Street and I-35 in November, and it was poised to buy another property near the airport before Austin City Council broke for the holidays. City Council held off on that, as the hotel wasn't properly zoned, but it will likely look at another site as soon as its next meeting Jan. 23.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition will lease the properties from the city (at a below-market rate) and manage services. ECHO's Executive Director Matt Mollica, who says he's used the strategy effectively in San Francisco and Denver, has been leading the effort to get these developments up and running.

Still, neighbors near the Rodeway Inn have complained the city didn't properly notify them ahead of the vote – a complaint that will likely resurface as the city moves to retrofit other properties. Some Council members have also expressed concern about leaning in to this strategy, as it's untested in Austin.

In the private sector, ATXHelps, a collective of nonprofits and business groups, is also looking to build a shelter downtown. It's trying to raise $14 million for the property and to run it for two years. However, as Gus Bova of The Texas Observer points out, it's well short of its fundraising goals.

Counting On It

Later this month, ECHO will coordinate its annual point-in-time count, a one-night census of people living in homeless shelters and outdoors that's required for Austin–Travis County to receive federal funding.

The count is largely unscientific, but it's the (for lack of better phrasing) industry standard for service providers and governments that get money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for programs to help reduce homelessness.

This year, the count will be done through an app instead of on paper, ideally making the count quicker and easier to sort through and tabulate.

Historically, the results come out in late March or April, but ECHO expects the app will speed up the release.

As Texas Goes

Nationally, the discussion around homelessness has mirrored the one in Austin, with President Donald Trump calling out left-leaning cities and states (read: California) for their handling of the problem.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration signaled it would take a harder line on enforcement of homelessness laws, floating a plan that would provide more money for law enforcement than nonpunitive programs.

Trump also tapped Robert Marbut, a former homelessness consultant in San Antonio, to head up the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness – an agency that coordinates federal and state efforts to end homelessness. His appointment raised the hackles of some advocates, because of his opposition to a "housing first" approach to ending homelessness.

Marbut rose to prominence as a consultant after starting the Haven for Hope project in San Antonio – a standalone compound that houses homeless folks from across the city. Abbott has touted the project as a model for other Texas cities. But opponents say shipping people elsewhere isn't the best method to get them out of homelessness and that getting people into homes is the better move.

The Trump administration also has reportedly proposed a plan to repurpose federal land to construct bigger, camp-based projects.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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