Special Report: housing Austin's homeless

When it comes to Austin's homeless population, advocates say we need an overhaul. APD statistics show they're linked to thousands of crimes every year, and the cost for taxpayers is shocking. It will take the entire community, working together, to help fix this problem. But, looking at neighboring cities, there is hope.

"Some days you don't know if you're going to make it and some days you feel pretty good, but those days are very seldom," says Dimples Walker, formerly homeless.

Austin has a homeless problem. The reality is, we have yet to find a solution.

"I don't know what the right answer is, with respect to the ARCH and homelessness downtown, but I do know that what we're doing now, does not seem to be working," says Mayor Steve Adler, City of Austin.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless is an emergency shelter that serves more than 400 people during the day and sleeps around 230 people a night. At this point, it's being overrun by demand.

"Having a downtown location is not the challenge, it's how many people that facility is trying to handle and not having the resources to actually have someone come into that facility," says Mayor Adler.

The point-in-time count shows in 2016 there were 2,197 people who were identified as homeless in Austin. Taxpayers are often left footing the bill. Integral Care says the average cost of clinical and emergency services, per person, is estimated at $50 thousand. On top of that, APD says the homeless committed 7,770 crimes in 2016 and already 482 this year.

"As a community we need to have a robust set of services that are able to engage individuals throughout that journey, throughout their journey of recovery. From reaching to them while they are in front of the ARCH, all the way to placing them in permanent housing. We are lacking many of the services that are in-between," says Darilynn Cardona-Beiler, associate director, Austin Travis County Integral Care.

An hour south of Austin, you'll find a city that seems to have found a system that's working.

"In that building, we've got detox and sobering beds," says Scott Ackerson, VP of strategic relationships, Haven for Hope.

San Antonio has a 22-acre campus called Haven for Hope. It's a community within a community, tackling the root causes of homelessness.

"Homelessness generally is not the only issue. Often times it's just the symptom of other underlying issues, to include trauma. If we're not addressing those core issues, we're not going to end homelessness," says Ackerson.

They have a safe outdoor sleeping area for temporary shelter and long-term living quarters for those needing more one-on-one help.

"The back half of this is for our families and then the front half is single women," says Ackerson.

There are more than 150 social services on-site: from employment readiness, to signing up for college, to substance abuse and mental health services. Case managers and peer advocates help guide those on campus.

"People need more than just a bed and a meal, they need intervention based on what their particular needs are. Homelessness is not a homogeneous phenomena and so we can't treat it as such," says Ackerson.

Homelessness in Downtown San Antonio has decreased by more than 80 percent. There's many reasons why, Haven for Hope is at the center along with their 91 partner organizations. Mayor Adler commends the success that Haven for Hope has had but says we need to find a solution that's right for Austin. His suggestion is finding permanent supportive housing.

"I think everyone sees that one of the best ways to be able to build affordable housing, at a good price to taxpayers, is to use land that we've already owned. A lot of the real dense development that's happening downtown, even though not directly providing affordable housing, is supplying a lot of the property tax revenue and sales tax revenue that we use all over this city," says Mayor Adler.

Austin is starting to think outside the box. Community First Village opened in 2015. It's 27 acres with 120 micro-homes, 100 RV's and 20 canvas-sided cottages. They have on-site medical and behavioral health care, along with teaching resident skills in gardening, art, and blacksmithing to earn an income. The Mobile Loaves & Fishes philosophy is that housing alone will never solve homelessness, but community will. Integral Care helps run the clinic at Community First Village, providing mental health care services. They also do their own part in housing Austin's homeless, serving 450 at the moment. Their process starts by going into the community.

"If you need anything let us know, we'll be around," says Karen Dorrier, PATH supervisor.

Then they set them up with a place to live and offer them the services they need. Dimples Walker says it saved her life. Before that she was living out of her car, in fear, for years.

"I know that I am a different person. I still have my ups and downs with emotions but I feel much stronger. I'm able to tackle on what I need to tackle on," says Walker.

There are more plans for the future. Integral Care is in the process of creating a 50-unit apartment community built around the "housing first" philosophy. It will be the first of its kind in Central Texas.

"Individuals are able to live in an environment where it's supportive. Wrap-around services will be available to them. They're able to go downstairs and the building will have a clinic, 24/7 staff and access any services they may need," says Cardona-Beiler.

That will open in spring 2018. It will be part of 200 supportive housing units available in Austin over the next two years.

"I feel so much better and I have so many wonderful people who are helping me. I mean, it gets better and my optimism just grows bigger and bigger," says Walker.

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