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Black Austinites are six times more likely to experience homelessness than white Austinites, report finds

A person sits at a camp for people experiencing homelessness outside the Salvation Army in 2019.
Julia Reihs
A person sits at a camp for people experiencing homelessness outside the Salvation Army in 2019.

A report out this week from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, found Black folks in Austin are six times more likely to experience homelessness than white Austinites. But the report also showed that the Austin area's system to connect people with housing has become more equitable.

Claire Burrus, research manager at ECHO, said last year the Austin area's homeless response system saw huge gains in terms of federal funding. Both the City of Austin and Travis County set aside hundreds of millions in federal money to address homelessness, but nonprofits and advocates still find it difficult to reduce homelessness and get people in stable living situations.

"That's increasingly challenging in Austin because of the costs of housing and because we have a stagnant minimum wage and because health care is inaccessible for lots of folks living in deep poverty," Burrus said. "Even when we have increased funding in our system ... we're still kind of facing this uphill battle to house people."

ECHO manages the network of nonprofits across Austin that address homelessness. It's responsible for distributing to these organizations federal money for housing and homeless services.

Part of its responsibility in managing this network is setting up an intake system for people seeking services and housing. A questionnaire, known as a coordinated assessment, is used to prioritize a person's need for housing. ECHO's report out this week looks at the racial disparities within that intake system and within housing placements.

Burrus told KUT this year's analysis is unique. In October, ECHO retooled its coordinated assessment system in favor of one that is tailored to Travis County and addresses historic equity gaps in Austin's homelessness system. The data in the report is a unique look at both the previous system, known as the Vulnerability Index, and the new one, the Austin Prioritization Index.

The data in the report shows the new index is more equitable. Last year under the old system, white clients were more likely to secure permanent supportive housing, which is housing that provides on-site services and counseling. But Black clients were more often placed in what's called rapid-rehousing, which typically puts folks in apartments without those services to get them on their feet.

Historically, the report says, that's because white clients scored a point higher on average in the previous Vulnerability Index-based system. Under the API, Latino and Black clients typically score higher, thus making them more likely to get connected with services. Historically, Black and Latino clients are more likely to be native Austinites and they experience homelessness longer than white clients at the time they're first connected with services.

"We have a massive backlog of clients that are waiting for housing in our system, and we have a large list of clients that have recently completed coordinated assessments," Burrus said, "and we sort of would like to right the wrong of the years and years of using a tool that prioritized white people."

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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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