Opinion: Decriminalizing Homelessness is Working. Now Austin Needs Investment to Take the Next Step.

The ordinance changes in Austin, designed a year ago to decriminalize the basic human need of having somewhere safe to sleep, have done exactly what they were crafted to do

Opinion: Decriminalizing Homelessness is Working. Now Austin Needs Investment to Take the Next Step.

There are many uncertainties about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact homelessness in Austin/Travis County, but one thing is clear: The changes City Council made to camping ordinances one year ago made our homeless system's response to the pandemic more efficient and more effective in the protection of our most vulnerable community members.

The criminalization of homelessness takes many shapes and forms in cities across the country. Many times, people experiencing homelessness are ticketed or fined for performing basic human functions, like sleeping, eating, sitting, and asking for money or other resources. This leads to entanglement in the criminal justice system, further perpetuating the stigma associated with homelessness and making it difficult for people experiencing homelessness to find a job or secure permanent housing.

Our city has accomplished a lot in the last year since decriminalizing homelessness because our unsheltered neighbors are safer and easier to engage. The 2020 Point in Time Count was our community's most accurate to date and allowed our partners to deploy much-needed hygiene and food supplies more strategically as we try to keep our most vulnerable community members safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Eating Apart Together (EAT) Initiative, a collaboration between the city and nonprofits to provide meal bags to people experiencing homelessness, recently surpassed 100,000 meals delivered to encampments and providers during the pandemic. The scale of this program would not have been possible if people still feared arrest or harassment due to their unsheltered status.

The city of Austin is leveraging federal dollars to provide COVID-19 protective lodging to the most medically vulnerable people experiencing homelessness using non-congregate hotel rooms as emergency shelter. The city of Austin, our homeless service provider community, and ECHO are committed to ensuring that none of the people staying in those rooms returns to homelessness.

Despite these successes, there is much work ahead. As a community that prioritizes the wellbeing of all our residents regardless of their housing status, we must immediately take the next steps to right the wrongs that decades of unjust and inhumane policy decisions have magnified. We need to make substantial investments in Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) and other permanent housing interventions. Our federal, state, and local budgets must reflect the stated priorities of our country under the Constitution: that all people are created equal and deserve the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Racial equity cannot be absent from this conversation and, in fact, must be central to it. Justice and equity for our Black and brown community members is not just the recognition of equality; the actualization of justice requires economic repair and investment. Housing justice is racial justice. Health care justice is racial justice. Economic justice is racial justice. It can't be enough simply to decriminalize survival. The structural inequities that are pervasive in our city and our country mean it is time for people in government to prioritize funding for communities disproportionately impacted by structural racism, which includes people experiencing homelessness and at risk of homelessness. Show me your budget and I'll tell you what your priorities are.

The ordinance changes in Austin, designed to decriminalize the basic human need of having somewhere safe to sleep, have done exactly what they were crafted to do. If we measure success by the assurance that human beings are not hassled by the police as they sleep unsheltered in our community, the ordinance changes last July have succeeded. But this cannot be the only measure. For our unsheltered community members, as well as for affordable housing and homelessness advocates, the necessity of such ordinances means that our community has a long way to go in ensuring the basic human rights of access to quality affordable housing and health care for all Austinites.

Matt Mollica is the executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), Austin/Travis County’s Continuum of Care lead agency committed to cultivating a community fiercely focused on ending homelessness.

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Matt Mollica, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, ECHO, homelesslessness

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