Annual 'homeless count' reveals 5 percent increase in people living on streets, in shelters

The annual "homeless count" is in and the number of people living on the streets and in shelters in Austin and Travis County is up.

According to the annual "point in time" count, as of January 26, 2019, there are 2,255 experiencing homelessness in the area, an increase of 5 percent over last year, according to Mayor Steve Adler.

"I expected a little increase and any increase is bad in my opinion," said Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO).

Howard says what's good is that there has been a decrease in the youth and veteran homeless populations where they've been putting their focus and resources.

"It's powerful for a community who wants to end homelessness because it should help give us confidence that we do know what to do, we're just not doing enough of it," Howard said.

Adler says the $250 million in affordable housing bond money is being worked on by staff right now. There's also $30 million in extra funding available, thanks to a Waller Creek TIF.

"We're still looking at exactly how that can be used whether it has to be used for shelter or whether we can use it for actual housing which would be preferable," said Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo.  

On this week's council agenda, Tovo is working on a "pay for success" initiative. According to ECHO, the goal is to recruit private investors to help scale up permanent supportive housing.

"The city does pay back those investors if and only that program achieves success," Tovo said.  

Later this year, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) will be re-scoped, but there are still no plans for a relocation which some in the community have called for.

"Clearly the need is very much downtown," Tovo said.  

Richard Troxell, founder and CEO of House the Homeless, has some different ideas on how to help.

"The fact that they're going to throw money at it, throw your money at it, my money at it doesn't make sense to me," Troxell said.

Troxell doesn't put much stock in the accuracy of the homeless count or even the need to know that number.

"We know that there's about 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness in this nation, why are we worrying with the number?" Troxell said.

Troxell says local and national leaders should be looking at the core issues. He says there are two groups: those who can work and those who can't. The wage for those who can work needs to be enough to get into housing.

"For those people who can't work let's be sure that the disability check is enough to get people into housing," Troxell said.

Until those two things are taken care of, Troxell says it's all on the backs of taxpayers.

"It's just like open money, open the coffers just give the money out and solve the problem," Troxell said. "Well that's not what these people need."

As for the downtown ARCH, he said he's never believed it was in an appropriate spot and that Austin doesn't need a shelter as such.

"Yeah I think we need a 'workers hotel' that people can go into put their money down, stash their stuff, get a shower, get up in the morning refreshed and go to work," he said. "That's what kind of housing we need."

In addition to what the city is doing, ECHO points out the Salvation Army is opening a new shelter and transitional housing soon. Mobile Loaves and Fishes is working to expand "Community First." Lifeworks, Integral Care, and Foundation Communities also have housing developments under construction.