Effectively Addressing Homelessness in Austin
In 2019, Mayor Adler and the City Council took a radical turn in Austin’s public policy on homelessness when they voted to overturn the long-standing prohibition against public camping, sitting and lying on Austin streets. Immediately, the result was an unmitigated disaster. Practically overnight, nearly every piece of public property – from underpasses, to street corners, sidewalks, parks, hiking trails, and playgrounds – was covered in tents or dangerous and makeshift dwellings. This even spread to private property and businesses.
Basic sanitation was disregarded, as trash, human waste, and even used hypodermic drug needles piled up - posing real threats to public health, safety and our environment. Women, children, business owners, workers, and everyday Austinites were subject to harassment, threats, theft, bio-hazardous materials, indecent exposure, and even violence near the encampments.
Fires breaking out at these encampments became a daily occurrence. Damage resulted to highway overpasses, city parkland, and culminated in the near destruction of the iconic Buford Tower downtown near Lady Bird Lake. We are lucky greater tragedies have not occurred.
Due to the new “rules,” the streets of Austin became a magnet for the mentally ill and substance-addicted, exacerbating the public health and safety crisis and the need for effective solutions.
Quickly fed up with Adler’s social experiment, in 2021 the citizens of Austin overturned the actions of the city council at the ballot box, and voted to reinstate the camping ban. But the damage was done – enforcement of the camping ban remains lax by City “leadership,” and APD remains understaffed and thereby unable to enforce the law. This November 8th is the most pivotal election in Austin's history - it's when we'll vote if we want to regain and maintain Austin’s sense of safety, our quality of life, and a fundamental sense of order.
When I am Mayor, I will ensure we have a fully staffed police department able to enforce the camping ban - no exceptions. We will do it in a way that is both compassionate toward those who need help, and that holds both the homeless and service providers accountable.
Under my leadership, we will Reassess & Regroup, Respond, and Re-envision our city’s approach to addressing homelessness.
1.Reassess & Regroup
Audit and account for all existing state, local, and federal resources. The public deserves a thorough examination of all homelessness spending, effectiveness of our programs and policies, and what metrics are being used to assess whether they are working or not. This will ensure true transparency of City spending on homelessness, so that we can appropriately plan for our much-needed course correction.
Effectively leverage existing state, federal and local homelessness resources. Once we’ve audited and accounted for our resources, we must effectively and creatively leverage those resources into providing the help and treatment needed. For example, we can utilize our local mental health authority and hospital district resources together in order to focus on mental health and substance abuse treatment services.
Ensure ECHO does an updated Point-in-Time (PIT) Count immediately and every year going forward. The PIT Count is a nationwide count of homeless individuals that determines where hundreds of millions of dollars in federal homeless funding go. ECHO, Austin’s Continuum-of-Care (CoC), has not conducted the PIT Count in 2 years allegedly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the only CoC in the state to have skipped the 2022 PIT Count. There is no reason COVID should continue to be an excuse to avoid the count any longer. We must know the true impact of Mayor Adler’s social experiment.
Fully enforce the camping ban (no exceptions), & clean up/eradicate encampments. We must first ensure that APD is fully staffed and empowered in order to uphold the law. Those in violation of the camping ordinance should be directed to appropriate shelters, housing, or go through the court system for connection to case management and supportive services.
Prioritize Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment. The vast majority of those who are living on the streets or in the woods are struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse disorders. We must ensure that these individuals are directed to appropriate mental health and substance abuse treatment. We will work with our local law enforcement and court system, while leveraging all local, state, and federal resources to ensure that there are treatment requirements for those in violation of the law.
Stop allowing open drug use on Austin’s streets and underpasses. Under my leadership, we will reject any fringe policies that encourage, enable, or facilitate hard drug use under the guise of “harm reduction.” Austin cannot follow the path of cities where open, hard drug use, coupled with seemingly insurmountable homelessness, has become the norm to everyday citizens, and even children. We will enforce hard drug use and possession laws, directing people toward appropriate treatment.
End expensive homeless hotel enterprises. Mayor Adler and current city leadership have proven unable to effectively or efficiently initiate their half-baked homeless hotel plans. They destroyed trust with the community with their lack of communication with neighbors and citizens in general. Under my leadership, we will focus on more cost-effective, less capital-intensive models to help those in need. Further, any such projects going forward must consider the voices from the community, not ambush or ignore them.
Move the ARCH. An alcohol-fueled tourism district is no place for a homeless shelter where most are struggling with addiction or other mental health issues. With the termination of the Front Steps contract, now is an opportune time to finally move the ARCH. It was not enough to change contractors - especially to California operation Urban Alchemy. We should reevaluate this new contract with Urban Alchemy, because we have learned that Austin will not solve its homelessness problems by importing ideas from California. Additionally, the ARCH property has incredible value that could create a dedicated income stream for improving homelessness and public safety.
Shift from a “Housing First” to “Housing Plus Treatment” model of service delivery. While housing is important, housing alone does not work without required supportive services to go along with it. Homelessness must be approached with compassion, but also with an aim toward empowerment and accountability. Mental health, substance abuse, and other rehabilitative services should not be optional when receiving housing or shelter.
Redefine “success.” To effectively address homelessness, we must have real solutions available for those who seek to improve their lives and get off of the streets. Current definitions of “success” among homelessness service providers are often outdated or incomplete, simply measuring whether a person served has remained in subsidized housing for 6-12 months. This skews the data to make it appear that failed policies are working. (Ultimately, the City of Austin needs to discontinue the practice of duplicating homelessness services, because those are the county's responsibility, and Austin taxpayers cannot afford for Austin to continue to be a nationwide magnet to the homeless.)
We know there is more to a person’s recovery from mental health, substance abuse, or financial catastrophes than simply living in subsidized housing for a short period of time. We know that the homeless can heal, improve themselves, and work toward a more complete and fulfilling life for themselves and for the children they may have.
While “success” might look a bit different for each individual, our revised vision for the homeless should include steps toward self-improvement, including:
- Seeking mental health and/or substance abuse treatment;
- Getting proper personal ID needed for work or housing;
- Receiving job training or counseling;
- Working toward a GED or other certification;
- Reuniting with children who have been removed from their care;
- Receiving non-profit legal assistance to assist with rental applications; or
- Clearing whatever personal hurdles that person may be facing.
Under my leadership, the City will both incentivize and hold service providers accountable to meeting these metrics as they apply for and receive City contract awards. We should strengthen partnerships with nonprofits that meet or exceed our renewed definition of success and end partnerships with those that don’t.
For example, proven providers like Community First! Village should be eligible to have increased levels of city services available nearby or onsite, such as police, fire, and/or EMS substations, bus stops, and mobile clinics with partner local health organizations.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. There are proven models like Haven for Hope & Community First! Village. These models both recognize that each individual experiencing homelessness has a different background and faces different challenges and circumstances. They are welcoming and empowering for all, and give all a sense of community, belonging, and most importantly, belief in themselves and hope for their futures. That is something all Austinites agree on.
Austin, the choice is yours in November. Will we continue down this path of hopelessness and unsustainability, or will we take a bold step forward toward public health, safety, and order. If you want a positive change, please join me at JenniferForAustin.com, as our success is only possible with your help. Your contributions, volunteer efforts, and vote in November are necessary for us to restore Austin back to a world-class city.