After A Year Of Controversy, Austin Gears Up For Another Homelessness Count

Jan 3, 2020

Roughly 2,500 homeless people sleep in shelters or outdoors in Austin on a given night. That estimate comes from the "point-in-time" count, an annual citywide census of the homeless community. Cities and counties must do the count on a single night to get federal money to help combat homelessness and house people living on the streets.

Advocates and officials in Austin are preparing for this year's count on Jan. 25 – but the 2020 count will be different.

First off, the issue received much more attention last year. In June, the city scaled back bans on camping and sitting or lying down in public. That led to more visible encampments, concern about health and safety, and ultimately state intervention. By fall, the city had reinstated parts of the camping ban.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition helps organize the count and manage the federal dollars that come through Austin and Travis County for the effort. Over the last couple years, the count has fallen short on its volunteer recruitment goals, but ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica says he hopes all the attention surrounding homelessness will lead to more volunteers this year. 

"We’re definitely trying to hit the volunteer number of 800. You know, we expect that there has been more focus on it this year in the community," he said. "So we do think we’ll be able to turn out enough volunteers ... to meet our coverage needs."

This year is also the first time volunteers and team leaders will use an app to count people in specific areas of the city. Previously, they noted on paper if they found a homeless person. If the person was willing to take a survey about their living situation, it would also be recorded on paper. 

All of that will now take place on the app, which Mollica says will allow for quicker results.

The count comes as the issue of homelessness has taken a larger share of the limelight both in Texas and nationally. In October, Gov. Greg Abbott threatened state intervention in Austin if city officials didn't reverse a June decision that effectively allowed camping in public across the city. While the Austin City Council changed city law and reinstated some bans on camping, it wasn't enough for Abbott. Since November, the Texas Department of Transportation has been clearing out underpasses and the state has repurposed state-owned land for temporary encampments. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has openly considered using federal land to house homeless people. Homelessness advocates worry the Trump administration could direct more federal money toward law enforcement to clear encampments and hold back money from cities that allow public camping. 

On top of all this is the discussion of the efficacy of the point-in-time count itself. In many cities, the count is largely done by volunteers, who may – for logistical or experiential reasons – undercount the homeless population. Cities like Seattle and Oakland, Calif., have hired contractors to bolster the accuracy of their counts.

In addition, HUD's definition of homelessness may not jibe with local definitions. Mollica says HUD doesn't consider temporarily sheltered people, like those couch surfing, to be homeless, so they wouldn't get counted in a point-in-time count. The same goes for people in jails or in hospitals or those who may be at-risk of being homeless, but who aren't outdoors on the night of the count.

"It's a big, coordinated effort," Mollica said. "We get a lot of people out and try to get everyone counted, but as you can imagine, there are a lot of people experiencing homelessness in our community that don't get counted and aren't identified that night."

Learn more about the count and sign up for volunteer training sessions at ECHO's website.

Got a tip? Email Andrew at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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