The Austin Police Department’s new program to address homelessness is about a month old. A few weeks ago, officers took to the streets of West Campus and downtown Austin. Their goal was to better understand the needs of people experiencing homelessness who often congregate in these neighborhoods.
It was a departure from their usual protocol of simply arresting or ticketing people living on the streets, often for minor offenses. APD Commander Patrick Cochran is leading APD’s Homelessness Outreach Team, or HOST.
“We’re trying to get something other than arrest, release, they move, arrest release, they move – that kind of thing," Cochran said. "And the HOST team is getting some of that done.”
One of their goals was to identify gaps in services, and Cochran was surprised at just how big that gap is. In less than a month, officers have conducted 78 new coordinated assessments. They assess how vulnerable a person is if they remain on the street. That’s the first step in connecting people with housing.
“Which means that’s 78 people that hadn’t been done, so they weren’t even in the system to get any services. And that’s part of what the team is doing, they’re doing the outreach. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, we’re going out there," he said.
They’re also hoping to save the city money. When officers get a call about someone who needs medical attention, Cochran says the protocol is to call the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services. But the HOST team has been able to cut down on EMS rides by transporting people themselves. They’re also working alongside mental health counselors from Austin-Travis County Integral Care. Kathleen Casey is the director of adult behavioral health at ATCIC. She says they’re working to build trust with people experiencing homelessness.
“That partnership really has solidified that the officers are there help keep the community safe, and with the mental health team there, to link folks to the necessary treatments,” she said.
APD plans to do a formal assessment of the program later this summer, and Cochran says he's hoping to get more funding to expand the effort citywide.