AUSTIN, Texas - Austin's interim homeless strategy officer David Gray has been on the job for just a few weeks. He says the city's response to the homeless crisis is at an inflection point.
FOX 7 Austin's John Krinjak spoke with Gray one-on-one, and began by asking about what he has noticed since he came on board in his new role.
John Krinjak: Was there a piece of this issue that, when you walked into this job, you said, look, we need to change how we're doing this?
David Gray: I think when we look at our homeless response system holistically, the key challenge here is our system needs to scale. You know, we know that we need an additional 772 emergency shelter beds to get people into shelter. We do have some beds that are currently being developed and expanded. Recently, the city doubled our capacity at our bridge shelters, which is the North Bridge and the South Bridge Shelters. We also opened up the Marshalling Yard, which has a capacity of 300 beds. And then we're working with The Other Ones Foundation to expand their capacity at Camp Esperanza. But even after all of that work is said and done, we still have that gap of 772. And so, frankly, we're looking for opportunities for more shelter. And so if there are folks out there that are interested in engaging with the city in that way, please reach out to our team and let us know.
John Krinjak: I understand there's a goal of a little over 1400 beds by 2025. So is it fair to say we're about halfway there?
David Gray: It's fair to say that.
John Krinjak: You look back over the last several years, and then in 2019 we had the ordinance allowing camping on the streets. Two years later, the people voted to reinstate the camping ban. And now we're two years beyond that. What goes through your mind? What kind of progress has been made?
David Gray: We have a team that's called the Homeless Encampment Management Team, and it's a cross-departmental collaboration. And what we're doing is we're working as one city to engage with unsheltered individuals to clean camps and ultimately to move people into shelter or into housing. So it's a significant amount of work, and we're going to continue to do that work until we can get everybody with shelter or with the housing opportunity.
John Krinjak: How would you respond to some of the concerns that have been raised about what's happening, or what may be happening, in some of the shelters?
David Gray: So I know recently there were some concerns that were raised specifically about our North Bridge Shelter, and we are looking into that. We launched a formal investigation that's still ongoing. So I can't speak to the specifics right now, but since I took this role, I've spent many days working out of the North Bridge Shelter, working with our staff to look at our procedures and our protocols. And I've been pleased with what I've seen.
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John Krinjak: Last thing I want to ask you: how big of an issue is mental health and substance use when it comes to homelessness?
David Gray: There's a strong correlation. I will say that's not everybody's challenge, and some people's challenges can be quickly resolved. However, the longer they're allowed to stay on the street, and the longer they live on the street, the more traumatic their homelessness experience becomes. You know, we have some great partners in our region with Central Health and Integral Care and others who play a major role in the space of mental health services.
John Krinjak: Do you think there are enough resources, enough treatment to meet that moment?
David Gray: You know, when we look at our homeless response system, I think every area of our homeless response system needs to scale up to meet the challenge that we're faced with and to serve the population that we're called to serve. And so that's for mental health and substance use disorder. That's for housing and shelter services. That's for helping people get state IDs. Every part of the system needs to be more heavily invested in and scaled up so that we can help the community that is unhoused.
John Krinjak: David Gray, interim homeless strategy officer with the city of Austin. Thanks so much for being here, we appreciate it.
David Gray: Thank you, John. Take care.