Austin has been investing in more housing for the homeless. Is it working?

“Because the need is so much greater than the supply, even people with very serious needs have waited for months and years” to get into a housing program, says American-Statesman reporter Serena Lin.

By Sarah AschJune 5, 2024 10:00 am,

It’s been about three years since Austin voters decisively reinstated the city’s ban on camping in public spaces.

The City Council had repealed a longstanding camping ban in 2019, in an effort to decriminalize homelessness. As the ban returned, city officials promised to invest in housing for its growing homeless population. But even as the City of Austin has built more units and funded more rental assistance programs in recent years, its housing capacity has not been able to keep pace with those living on the streets.

Serena Lin, who covers legal affairs at the Austin American-Statesman, recently spent time getting to know people experiencing homelessness who are waiting for services.

“We’ve spent time on the streets and in shelters, talking to some of the thousands of people in Austin who live unsheltered and are hoping to get a spot in a rental assistance program through the City of Austin,” she said. “And a lot of people say that despite having very serious medical needs or having other symptoms, it’s been very difficult to get into a housing program.”

The city’s system is supposed to prioritize those with the highest needs, but Lin said that doesn’t always address everyone who is struggling.

“People in Austin complete something called a coordinated assessment, which is meant to take into account current circumstances and how someone grew up and form an idea of how vulnerable someone might be on the street,” she said. “But one problem is that because the need is so much greater than the supply, even people with very serious needs have waited for months and years on the list.”

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This is true even as Austin has invested federal dollars in more housing and programs.

“After the pandemic, the American Rescue Plan Act awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to Austin and around $42.5 million of that money was set towards rapid rehousing, which is meant to be short-term rental assistance programs that will last anywhere from six months to two years,” Lin said. “And so the city has been funding more programs through ARPA.

“And in addition, it’s been building more permanent supportive housing units throughout the city. These units are meant to be long-term housing programs for people experiencing homelessness. And they often come with additional services like mental health counseling.”

Given that housing programs are long-term and costly, Lin said experts recommend the city also allocate more funding to quicker solutions.

“One thing that advocates say that more funding could go into is something called rapid exit and diversion programs. So these programs often provide a one-time payment to someone experiencing homelessness,” she said. “It can go towards something like a ticket to a family member who lives out of town, a fee to prevent eviction, a down payment on a new apartment.

“And so these programs move much quicker. And they try to prevent someone from becoming homeless or try to divert someone out of homelessness very early into their journey.”

In the meantime, Lin said, people waiting for services can get frustrated.

“I think people who have been homeless for years in Austin feel a little left behind by the system, even as the city has tried to conduct more outreach, sending more people into encampments into hidden places around the city,” she said. “And I think that people feel that service providers are doing their best with the limited resources that they have, but they still want more because they feel like there’s little that they can do on their own to resolve their homelessness.”

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