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Austin's Annual Count Of The Homeless Population Won't Go Ahead This Year Because Of COVID

Tony Nuñez (center) and Paul Miller check their map during Austin's Point In Time count on Jan. 25, 2020.
Julia Reihs
Tony Nuñez (center) and Paul Miller check a map while participating in a count of the city's homeless population on Jan. 25.

Austin's annual in-person count of people sleeping outdoors has been canceled this year because of COVID-19.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition said it got an exemption for the federally mandated survey from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency tasked with providing resources to reduce homelessness. ECHO quarterbacks money from HUD for Austin and Travis County.

Sarah Duzinski, ECHO's vice president of quality assurance, said the agency decided to cancel the in-person Point in Time count to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

Early on in the pandemic, she said, an ECHO assessment found the homeless population in Austin was 50% more likely to be susceptible to COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions. An additional risk lies in the count itself. Last year, more than 600 volunteers ranging in age from about 18 to 65 surveyed all over Austin. ECHO fears that could lead to a further spread of the virus.

"We looked in the entirety of all of those factors and decided it would not be a responsible thing to do, and the harm of conducting a PIT count would outweigh the benefit," Duzinski said.

Instead, the count will rely on the Homeless Management Information System – a database of clients who've sought services to get out of or avoid homelessness – to approximate the number of unsheltered people in the Austin area this year.

That number of requests for services last year was around 9,200. Some of those requests were from folks who may now be housed, however, and the figure could include multiple requests from a single person.

Last year, the official in-person count found 2,506 people were experiencing homelessness in Austin – a 10-year high – and the population of people living outdoors had increased by 45%.

Austinites staying in shelters will be counted as they are every year, though shelters have limited their capacity during the pandemic.

Akram Al-Turk, director of research and evaluation for ECHO, said he expects an increase in this year's count as a result of the economic instability from the pandemic.

The outbreak caused unprecedented job losses in Austin, and the state initially struggled to provide unemployment benefits. Some of those benefits have since tapered off. On top of that, Central Texas food banks are seeing record-breaking demand that they expect to continue for the next two years.

Al-Turk said he believes the Austin moratorium on evictions has helped forestall a more drastic increase in homelessness.

"Given the pandemic and the economic crisis as a result of it, we do suspect that the count of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness will go up," he said. "I think one thing that has been positive in the city is that the eviction rate has been relatively low. But what we're worried about is when the eviction moratorium expires."

The eviction bans in Austin and Travis County expire Feb. 1.

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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