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Austin's Homeless Population Remained Steady During Pandemic, Survey Shows

 Encampments outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Nov. 4, 2019.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Encampments outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Nov. 4, 2019.

Austin's homeless population has remained steady since last year, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition's annual count.

All told, this year's count found 3,160 people were experiencing homelessness in Austin, ECHO says.

The agency says 2,238 people were unsheltered, while 922 people were in traditional shelters or were staying in the hotel properties acquired by the city to house medically vulnerable Austinites during the coronavirus pandemic.

Typically, ECHO coordinates an in-person count with hundreds of volunteers covering the city for its survey, which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The pandemic made that impossible, so ECHO developed a new method of counting.

The agency used data from its Homeless Management Information System, a shared data pool that tracks people requesting housing and health services from local providers, to estimate the share of unhoused folks in Austin. ECHO says the count is more accurate than an in-person count, and that it will use the same methodology to provide monthly snapshots going forward.

ECHO used the new methodology on data from 2020 and 2021 and found a slight dip in the city's homeless population — from 3,194 people in 2020 to 3,160 this year.

The nontraditional count came in a nontraditional year marked by a pandemic and citywide controversy over the city's policies related to homelessness. On top of that, it was one of the deadliest years for unhoused Austinites. At least 256 people died on Austin's streets in 2020.

It was also a year in which service providers and shelters were hobbled because of the pandemic. Shelters were forced to reduce capacity to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which pushed Austin to acquire hotel properties to house homeless folks. ECHO argued that shelter space, coupled with Austin and Travis County's moratorium on evictions, led to this year's relative stability amid unprecedented job losses.

Akram Al-Turk, director of research and evaluation for ECHO, says the impending expiration of the eviction moratorium — and Austin's perennial affordability issues — could fuel a rise in homelessness going forward. Austin and Travis County's moratorium expires on Aug. 1, and landlords will be allowed to evict some tenants with five months of back rent starting next month.

"I do think that if you look at some other cities ... their eviction numbers did not go down as dramatically as they have in Austin, and I do think that helps explain some of the numbers here," Al-Turk said. "But, yes, I am very concerned that after Aug. 1 those numbers are going to go back up."

Al-Turk added that Austin's rising rents could also lead to an increase in homelessness "in the next few months and couple of years."

Last year, ECHO said service providers housed nearly 1,900 people experiencing homelessness, an 8% increase compared to 2019.

As Austin strives to house more people, it's at a crossroads after the victory of Proposition B, the referendum that reinstated criminal penalties on public encampments, along with limits on panhandling and resting in public.

Austin has begun to reinstate the camping ban, while also trying to house people living outdoors in temporary shelters, at city-sanctioned encampments and in transitional housing in hotel properties.

Matt Mollica, ECHO's executive director, said that those criminal penalties make it tough for folks transitioning out of homelessness. With the penalties back in place, Mollica said, folks may focus less on getting housed and worry more about possible fines.

"This is not a solution to end homelessness. It makes it harder for people to exit homelessness into housing, and that focus of keeping housing at the forefront of the work will change for people a little bit," Mollica said. "It will be more of a crisis-management discussion of getting basic needs met."

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have continued to scrutinize the city's policies on homelessness this legislative session.

Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have approved a statewide ban on camping, and Gov. Greg Abbott is likely to sign it into law.

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