COVID-19 Emergency Center Takes On Social Service Needs

Task forces tackle food access, behavioral health, homelessness

Vella Karman, the city's interim homeless services officer, at Saturday's news conference

A new “social services” branch of the Austin-Travis County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) has been established to help coordinate city departments, governmental agencies, and nonprofit service providers during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet the growing needs of people who depend on the safety net these agencies provide.

There are three task forces that have pulled together people in the social services world – thankfully, including frontline outreach workers and not just teleworking bureaucrats – who are strategizing on homelessness, food access, and behavioral health. All three social services have been curtailed as spread of the new coronavirus has led service providers to either send outreach workers home or reassign them away from their normal duties to focus on COVID-related efforts.

In this week's issue, the Chronicle reported on the food access task force's efforts to set up a number of “micro-food-distribution” centers throughout the city that can provide thousands of daily meals to people while preventing the need for large crowds to gather. Austin Public Health and its community partners are still confirming where those sites will be, but they have created an online, interactive map showing where a variety of service and food centers are, in hopes that it will require people in need to travel shorter distances.

Although some people experiencing homelessness do have access to smartphones that would enable them to make use of the interactive map, many do not. Even for those who do have phones, keeping them functioning, not to mention charged and operable, can be a challenge. And the places where people without homes could access a computer to use the internet have dwindled, meaning how useful the map will be to them is questionable.

Vella Karman, Austin’s interim homeless services officer, did note at a press conference on Saturday, April 4, that service providers and community organizations have purchased phones for unhoused neighbors to use during the pandemic. But it is unclear how many have been purchased, and how they are being distributed. “We’re also handing out flyers and doing verbal education with outreach workers and first responders,” Karman said of how the city and its partners are trying to address the access gap among people without homes.

The homelessness task force is developing short- and long-term strategies to increase temporary shelter beds, provide hygiene supplies, and identify sites that can be used as isolation facilities for people who have tested positive for COVID-19, or have been exposed to the virus. At this point, around 20 hand-washing stations and bathrooms have been deployed at places such as encampments where the city’s Violet Bag Program is utilized, and nonprofits like the Sunrise Navigation Center.

The city has leased the 292-room Crowne Plaza hotel off of I-35 in North Austin, which will be one of the isolation sites for people experiencing homelessness. The city is also near closing on its first deal in the “motel strategy” championed by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. Once the Rodeway Inn in South Austin is purchased by the city on April 17 and undergoes four weeks of renovation, it will serve as supportive housing for people without homes – and critically, during the pandemic, it will provide a place for vulnerable people to quarantine safely and comfortably.

Additionally, APH’s Neighborhood Centers will provide “emergency rent and utility assistance” beginning on April 6, although the centers themselves will remain closed. Clients should call 512/972-5780 for more information.

What exactly the behavioral health task force will be doing is less clear at this point. According to a press release, it will coordinate “with the local mental health authority (Integral Care) [and] other mental health and substance abuse providers to address emerging community needs.” As case managers have scaled back outreach under restrictive social distancing measures, the availability of mental health services for people who need them has been lacking.

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coronavirus, COVID-19, homelessness, Emergency Operations Center, social distancing, social services, food access, behavioral health, Vella Karman

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