Opinion: Prop B Passed. Now What?
We must prioritize long-term solutions for homelessness over easier-to-implement changes such as temporary shelters
On May 1, Austin voters overwhelmingly voiced that the city's current approach to homelessness is not working. While we were disappointed in the outcome of the vote and are concerned about the negative fallout that may result from recriminalizing homelessness, we recognize that the city now has a mandate to reimagine its approach to homelessness, housing, and health. As nurse researchers working to understand and address the needs of people experiencing homelessness, we understand that homelessness is a complex problem that often feels overwhelming. Luckily, evidence-based solutions to prevent and end homelessness exist. What is needed now is the political will to enact them.
Austin City Council passed a resolution on May 6 to provide more funds to homeless service providers through the Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link initiative. These funds will go to rapid-rehousing and a new bridge shelter, both of which are important for moving people off the streets. However, focusing on temporary shelter is a clear example of short-term and crisis interventions for the most visible aspects of homelessness being prioritized over long-term solutions addressing underlying, structural causes.
Crisis interventions are important as they alleviate suffering, but without an investment in long-term solutions, our most vulnerable community members will remain stuck in a cycle of unstable housing and homelessness. What is needed now are widespread policy changes that would enhance housing stability and improve well-being. Examples of these policy changes include universal living wages, affordable and accessible health care, and safeguards against discrimination in the rental market. While these policies would undoubtedly assist many in our community to remain stably housed, others will require more intensive support to permanently exit homelessness as over 30% of people experiencing homelessness live with serious mental illness, and the rate of disability among this population is 2.5 times higher than in the general population.
Permanent supportive housing (PSH) is a long-term solution with clear evidence supporting its effectiveness in helping chronically ill or disabled individuals to successfully exit homelessness. PSH provides barrier-free housing and intensive, wrap-around supports to help maintain housing stability and is considered a "gold standard" for supporting chronically homeless adults with psychiatric illness or disability to maintain housing. Unfortunately, waitlists for these units can be years long, and there are few, if any, alternatives to bridge this waiting time. Thus, while it is clear that investment in PSH is much needed and long overdue, the growing housing affordability crisis must also be addressed.
Austin must re-examine its approach to housing affordability by creating new policies targeting the known roadblocks to affordability. The 2017 Strategic Housing Blueprint led by the Department of Housing and Planning identifies numerous tested solutions to these issues. They include enacting policies that increase supply of affordable housing through inclusionary zoning, protecting renters by creating stronger eviction prevention and passing policies to enable rent control, identifying ways to fund affordability by engaging the private sector to fund affordable/workforce housing, and asking for citizens to continue to vote for general obligation bond elections for affordable housing.
Real reform will be difficult, and without long-term investment of resources, citizen engagement, and political initiative, Austin will continue to fail our neighbors experiencing homelessness, and ultimately the entire community. Each of us has a part to play in ending homelessness, and the passage of Proposition B should serve as a catalyst for problem-solving focused on long-term solutions.
Whitney Thurman, Ph.D., RN and Elizabeth Heitkemper, Ph.D., RN are faculty members, and Tara Hutson, MSN, APRN, FNP-BC is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. Dr. Thurman is a member of the Austin/Travis County Continuum of Care Homelessness Response System Leadership Council.