Naked City

No Homeless In Our Time?

On a brisk, wind-bitten Dec. 10 in downtown Austin, the Community Action Network's Homeless Task Force, in conjunction with the Austin/Travis Co. Health and Human Services Department, released a far-reaching 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. Defined as those "continuously homeless for a year or more, or [those] who have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years," around 600 of Austin's estimated 3,789 homeless meet the criteria for chronic homelessness.

However, this approximate 15% of the homeless population consumes more than half its allocated resources, a figure cited repeatedly by the consortium of politicians, homeless advocates, and business leaders speaking that morning. "In 2001, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took on the challenge of ending chronic homelessness nationwide within 10 years," said Mayor Will Wynn. "We in Austin, we're actually a little bit ahead of that curve." Wynn noted that the city's homeless initiative of the late 1990s led to increased emergency shelter, expanded housing, and funding for substance abuse treatment. Now, with a "federal mandate, [and] federal help" via HUD, Wynn proclaimed "Austin will, in fact, be one of the leading cities as we start this nationwide effort to end chronic homelessness."

Speaker Sally Shipman, former Austin City Council member and now Region VI coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, summarized the effort as a "national problem with local solutions." Overall, Austin is the fourth city in Texas, after El Paso, Dallas, and Corpus Christi, to adopt such a long-range plan. Drafted by the Chronic Homelessness Working Group and CAN's Homeless Task Force, the city's four recommendations begin with "planning for outcomes," via further research and fact finding, the bulk of this work being borne by an Ending Chronic Homelessness Organizing Committee.

The ECHO Committee's aim is to enact the city's recommendations, with groups delegated to each of the plan's four steps. Steps two and three – metaphorically characterized as "closing the front door" while "opening the back door" – seek to prevent future homelessness and help currently homeless leave the streets. Improving discharge services – ensuring that those released from jail, rehabilitation centers, mental health facilities, and the like have somewhere to go – is vital to homelessness prevention, according to Mary Rychlik, homeless services coordinator for the city. Assisting those exiting homelessness is to be similarly accomplished by increasing affordable housing, employment, and mental health and drug treatment.

Lastly, "building an infrastructure" to combat the roots of chronic homelessness was described by Rychlik, as an overarching commitment to "address the systemic problems that lead to poverty and homelessness" across government, community, and nonprofit sectors in the city. Indeed, the paradigm shift of ending, rather than managing, homelessness was a popular topic. "I don't have to be political – yet," said Driskill manager Jeff Trigger – incoming chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance and candidate in next May's City Council races – of his inaugural chairmanship of the ECHO committee. "I'd be happy if we never built another emergency shelter in Austin. They don't work for anybody."

Though this reflects the accepted belief that such facilities treat the symptoms but not the causes of homelessness, the DAA also supports proposed "quality of life" city ordinance changes that effectively criminalize aspects of homelessness, such as sleeping outdoors. Hopefully, Trigger's service to ECHO will highlight a true business commitment to ending homelessness (and not the DAA's solution ad interim).

After the conference, Richard Troxell, president of local group House the Homeless, spoke positively of the 10-year plan, but also of the urgent need to locally establish a fair living wage. "We're working from the federal level, to create that from the top down," he said of an increased minimum wage, "but we're trying to also say, this needs to happen from the bottom up, right here. So we're asking Austin's business community to step up to the plate, and say, 'This is a priority for us.' ... We can't wait." With winter barreling down on Austin, neither can the city's homeless.

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