How Three Texas Cities Are Managing The Rise In Homeless Residents

Jun 26, 2019

From Texas Standard:

As the gap between the wealthy and poor has grown in places where the cost of living is high, cities across the country have been struggling with growing populations of people experiencing homelessness – people soliciting passersby, sleeping and living on public streets and in parks. In Austin, where the wealth gap has been skyrocketing, so have the numbers of people living on the streets.

Last week, local leaders took steps to loosen laws critics say criminalize homelessness. But this led to pushback from the Texas governor, and a larger conversation statewide.

The Texas Standard spoke with leaders from cities across Texas to get a sense of how they are addressing the growth of homelessness.

Ann Kitchen is an Austin City Council member who supports the changes to Austin's rules that affect homeless residents. She says the relaxed laws protect public safety, while not preventing homeless people from "just living on the street peacefully." The City of Austin also approved $8.6 million for a new shelter for homeless residents last week.

Carl Falconer, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, says a lack of shelter space is the greatest problem his city faces with regard to homelessness. Falconers says people who without homes resort to sleeping in public or under highway overpasses because no shelter space is available. A lack of affordable housing also contributes to homelessness in Dallas, he says.

Latrelle Joy serves on the Lubbock City Council, representing District 6. She is co-chair of the city's new Homelessness Committee, and says the homelessness situation in Lubbock is better than in some Texas communities.

"We are focusing on enforcing the ordinances that we have, which include such thins as you can stand on the corner, but you can't get out into the street and solicit. You can't trespass," Joy says.

The committee Joy chairs has been active for about a month. She says Lubbock does have shelter space for homeless residents, and many of those affected experience mental health issues, she says. 

Kitchen says that in addition to relaxing previous restrictions on where people can sleep or sit, Austin City Council made other changes that she says will limit conflicts between homeless, and other residents and businesses.

"We funded a new kind of shelter," she says. "We also decided that we were going to designate areas where it was safe for people to camp, as well as a list of places where people cannot camp. You have to to all that together."

Falconer says the Dallas district attorney's office does not intend to prosecute criminal trespassing cases involving people experiencing homeless and mental health issues. 

"Right now, we're looking at several diversion programs to go along with that, to be able to keep them out of jail and to keep them connected to services, and get them connected to housing and long-term solutions for them," Falconer says.

Joy says that she and her committee are working on permanent housing solutions for people experiencing homelessness.

"But it costs money because you have to have case managers to monitor people once you put them into permanent housing," Joy says. "Because it's a transition."

Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to overturn Austin's new rules allowing homeless residents to sleep or "camp" on local streets. Abbott has supported a number of state laws that circumvented local ones, particularly in Austin.

"The governor and the legislature have made it harder to fund the public safety," Kitchen says, "and the mental health services that we've all been talking about."

She cites the legislature's passage this year of caps on the percentage by which cities can increase property tax rates without voter approval, as an example.

Falconer agrees with Kitchen, and says the Texas Housing Trust Fund should be expanded. He says the fund should be in a position to provide money to communities to build affordable housing.

"I have no problem with the state being involved in trying to help make the best use of their resources and also make sure that they help with public safety and security," Falconer says. "But in the same vein, they need to step up and they need to give us resources to be able to solve the problem." 

Written by Shelly Brisbin.