The Austin City Council is hiring Matthew Doherty, former head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, to help find solutions to homelessness here. Members approved his contract on a 10-1 vote Thursday – but not without some trepidation, as Doherty's eight-month contract could cost the city $95,000.
Some council members were dubious of both the price tag and the job's short timeframe, citing the city's contract with Lori Pampilo Harris, who served a month in her role as homelessness czar before quitting. Her departure capped a years-long search to fill that position and left a gap in executive-level leadership as Austin became a target of criticism over its homelessness policies.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he didn't feel "sufficiently educated" about the contract and that the city hadn't fully addressed the lessons learned from its hiring of Harris, who had a $155,000 salary. She was slated to transition into a consulting role similar to Doherty's, but ultimately didn't.
Flannigan said he thinks the city should better coordinate with the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, the regional agency that coordinates with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to better allocate resources to combatting homelessness.
"Without those challenges fully accounted for, I'm not comfortable bringing in more outside support," he said.
Doherty worked in housing authorities in Seattle and San Diego before joining the Council on Homelessness in 2012. He led that office, which coordinates 19 federal agencies, for four years before he was fired by the Trump administration.
A holdover from the Obama administration, Doherty championed the so-called housing-first model – the same model that's been embraced by city and county leaders in the greater Austin area. He was replaced by Robert Marbut, who helped San Antonio establish its Haven for Hope in 2010, a 22-acre open-air shelter complex has been praised by state leaders as a model for homelessness services. Marbut has openly panned the housing-first model.
City leaders are banking on his roughly 25 years of experience to find solutions to end homelessness, but Council Members Leslie Pool, Flannigan and Alison Alter expressed concern about relying too heavily on that expertise. Ultimately, Alter and Pool sided with the majority of council members.
Council members and Austinites testifying before the vote also expressed concern about Doherty's current consulting contract with the state of California – one that was made a month after he was asked to leave the Trump administration.
A handful of Austinites argued the money could be better spent to bolster vetted programs and increase shelter space.
Christy Thompson told council members she's been homeless since September. She and her wife, who both work full time, were overwhelmed by medical debt after a near-fatal car wreck left her wife with life-threatening injuries.
"My point is: How is he an expert in homelessness, when you have experts right here?" she said. "You have experts all over the street. Do you take time to ask them with compassion how they find their food and their medical care or housing – how they came to be on the street?"
This story has been updated.
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