Naked City

As Travis County's Economy Goes Up, So Does Poverty

Despite the brightening economy, local demand for basic services like food, clothing, and housing is on the rise, according to a new report by the Community Action Network, a public-private collaboration of local organizations focused on community issues. Some of the 2005 Basic Needs Report's findings:

More than 160,000 Travis Co. residents live in poverty.

• Caritas of Austin's soup kitchen provided 93,763 meals in 2004, an increase of 5,500 over 2003.

Austin's Health and Human Services Deptartment distributed 60% more food and clothing in fiscal year 2004 than previously.

• 2-1-1 Texas, the United Way's free information referral service, experienced a 20% increase in requests for basic needs services assistance from FY 2003 to 2004, as well as an 18% increase in the number of people requesting utility bill assistance.

"While the economy is improving, the number of people who are living in poverty is also increasing in this community," said Caritas executive director Julia Spann at the report's unveiling earlier this week downtown at Caritas. "I keep challenging people to do the math."

According to the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, a household has to earn two to nearly three times the official federal poverty income level to make ends meet in the Austin-San Marcos area. The federal poverty line is $18,850 for a family of four; CPPP says that means a single adult with no children needs about $19,950 annually to make it here, a single parent with one child needs more than $33,800, and two parents with two children need more than $44,000.

Helping families maintain roofs over their heads and keep their utility bills paid is important to the fiscal health of Travis County as a whole, said County Judge Sam Biscoe, as it costs significantly more to help a family out of homelessness than it does to help a family stay in their home – about $4,300 a month for a family of three for the former, versus $1,500 a month for the latter, according to the report. Those who qualify for services from Travis County's Health and Human Services Department are typically in extreme poverty, living at 50% of the federal poverty level, $9,425 annually for a family of four.

The Basic Needs Coalition of Central Texas, a collaboration between 25 nonprofit organizations, government agencies, faith-based groups, and community activists, including Travis County, the Community Action Network, and Caritas, is emphasizing home situation maintenance through its Best Single Source Project, an attempt at streamlining Austin and Travis Co. basic-needs services, Spann said. "What we've tried to really do is prevent people from being homeless [by] paying their rent utilities and preventing them from having to go to agency to agency to agency," she said. "That's just not a cost-effective system."

The program provides two months of case management for clients, who are eligible for services once a year. "Hopefully, 60 days later you're on your own," Biscoe said.

Judging from the crowd gathered daily outside the homeless shelter downtown, Austin and Travis Co. have their work cut out for them.

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