ECHO Director Calls For 'Game Change' To Get Ahead Of Homelessness In Austin

Apr 26, 2018

Update: The Austin City Council approved ECHO's Action Plan to End Homelessness at its April 26 meeting.

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The original story follows.

The number of people in Austin who are homeless has increased by 5 percent since 2017, new figures show.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) reports there are 2,147 people of all ages living on Austin's streets, up from 2,036 in 2017.

About 500 volunteers went out early on Jan. 27 to count people living on the streets, under bridges, in parks and in vehicles in Austin and Travis County for the Point in Time Count. ECHO added that number to the population of those in shelters or transitional housing that night to get the final count.

While the population count is up from last year, it hasn't varied dramatically in the past few years. The 2016 count was 2,138. In 2010, 2,087 people were counted as homeless.

Ann Howard, ECHO's executive director, said that fairly steady population means it's time to take more dramatic action to address the problem.

"We've held sort of steady, but we're concerned that could bust loose," she said. "I'm so grateful to be in Austin, where I think we're bold enough to lead, but we've got to change the game here."

Howard talked with KUT's Jennifer Stayton about why the population of people who are homeless is up slightly and what some of those ideas are for "changing the game." Part of that game change, she said, will require more spending.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Howard: There are so many things that go into the count. One thing we do know is that, over the course of 2017, we weren't able to get as many people into housing as we did the year before.

Stayton: If we look back over the numbers back to about 2010 they've stayed roughly within the same kind of range. I think there was a low of about 1,800 back in 2015 and there was a high of about 2,300 a few years before that. But is there a sense of why that number kind of seems to stay in roughly the same range from year to year?

Howard: We add housing, then we lose housing, you know. It gets redeveloped and the price goes up, or somebody gets a grant and somebody else loses a grant. And that's why, we think, we're at the point where we've got to dramatically change the options and the resources to really get ahead of this, because of what we see in the rest of the country. You know, we've held sort of steady, but we are concerned that could it could bust loose. I'm so grateful to be in Austin where, I think, we're bold enough to lead. But we've got to change the game here.

Stayton: So what do you do to change the game and kind of bust out of that range of you know about 1,800 to 2,200 or 2,300 that seems to come up in the count each year?

Howard: Yeah, I think a statistic that represents success is our work with housing homeless veterans. We have that number down to 2 percent of the people that need housing are veterans, and that's because we've built what I call a system that can identify a veteran and get them off the street and get them into housing. And we need to scale that up to apply to all folks that are experiencing homelessness. And it sort of comes down to resources. And I'm talking about money to pay rent, but I'm also talking about a welcoming community that allows folks to be renters – even when they're coming from a different place.

Stayton: So are there plans then to scale up existing programs or start new programs to create what's done for veterans? To create that for the entire population of people who are homeless?

Howard: Absolutely, and we've called it the Action Plan to End Homelessness. And, actually, City Council is about to endorse that plan, I believe. And it really does look at how we take the folks that we know need our help – and have the resources that sort of whatever level of help they need – and get them back into housing.

Stayton: So what are the specifics of that then?

Howard: So, there's five key components. It's looking at outreach and shelter; housing and support services; effective collaboration – how we all work together; addressing disparities in the data; and the last one would be really around that the community partnership or the public private partnership – the money and the will to do something.

Stayton: So how do those, in aggregate or separately, vary from what's being done now? Because a lot of those sound like familiar descriptions or programs that already are happening.

Howard: Sort of our "Cadillac program" for folks, you know, getting off the street, we call that permanent supportive housing. And when we bring clients into those programs their housing stability is like 92 percent. They don't return to homelessness. We have other programs where you get less intensive help, and those programs are running like in the 80 percent to 85 percent success. That's pretty good. And so we want to scale up those kinds of programs that we know work.

Stayton: And how much will all of this cost?

Howard: Yeah, it's going to cost a doubling of the money, which is about $30 million we need on an annual basis added to what we're doing now. That is chump change, compared to the money the community is using right now with folks cycling in and out of emergency medicine or criminal justice situations. So, we would use less money smarter, if we could house these folks.

Stayton: Are we talking about federal money, HUD money? Where would the money come from?

Howard: I think we just learned of some new housing vouchers that might be available to Austin – a voucher is like a subsidy – that we could apply for from HUD. So I think we'd be looking to federal resources. I think when we're talking about the local community, the philanthropic community and local government, I mean these are these are smart programs, and I think when you spread it out amongst city, county, philanthropy, business, high-wealth individuals, it's a smart way to use our money.

Stayton: You said that part of the Austin Action Plan to End Homelessness is sort of a community commitment. Part of that is financial. Part of that is the community will to do this work. Talk about that a little bit and the role that that plays in making and like this successful, or not.

Howard: I think one example will be over the next few months and in the fall the City Council will be debating an affordable housing bond. You know, we've done a couple of these in 2006 and 2012. We did it again in '13. We need more apartments. We need more places for people to live. I think another one is to be welcoming. We also need to be willing to live next door to people who maybe are coming from a different background or a different situation.

Stayton: How do you get people comfortable with that situation?

Howard: Our programs do a really good job at helping someone get into an apartment and then stabilizing. For one, making sure they can pay rent. Two, it's making sure they have groceries, transportation. And then sometimes we bring programs to an apartment complex that everybody can use, like budgeting, to sort of build community for that individual. We do a lot of work right now with property owners and landlords – that was so successful in housing veterans. And we're continuing that work today. When a renter learns that their property management company or property owner is partnering with some of our agencies like a Caritas or a Safe Place or Integral Care to maybe learn about that, but also to welcome it and be supportive.

Stayton: Ann Howard is executive director of ECHO, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. Ann, thank you for your time today.

Howard: Thank you.