Homelessness on the Rise in Austin

Annual count reveals a 20% increase in homelessness

Photo by Jana Birchum

In late January, hundreds of volunteers dispersed across Austin to find and survey people experiencing homelessness. Led by the Ending Community Homelessness Coali­tion (ECHO), the annual Point in Time count helps paint a picture of homelessness across the nation. It counts both sheltered – people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing – and unsheltered – people found sleeping or staying outside.

"We successfully had about 500 people on that very cold night counting, including CNN and Senator Kirk Watson, Mayor Steve Adler, [and] a former news anchor," said Ann Howard, executive director of ECHO. "We had firefighters, we had medical professionals ... and we need to build on that community spirit of wanting to help."

Preliminary results from the count are in, and the data indicate a 20% increase in homelessness, compared to the count performed in January 2015. Volunteers found the homeless in every city council district and county precinct that night, including 1,382 sheltered and 815 unsheltered, compared to last year's 1,165 sheltered and 667 unsheltered.

While ECHO has preliminary results, they're now working to comb data and uncover information about subgroups including veterans, homeless youth, and those with mental illness. The organization will submit final results to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in April.

"I'd love to thank the volunteers because we found people," Howard said. "And as much as I don't want to have homelessness, and as hard as we're working to house people, if there's somebody out there that needs help we want to know about it."

Howard attributes part of the increase to a rise in the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing beds. With more resources available, more individuals and families are able to seek help. Housing, Howard said, is the solution, but there is a strong need for more housing, more case managers, and more program resources to make that vision a reality in the city. While the hard numbers indicated a decrease from 2014 to 2015, other ECHO studies showed an increase of 15%. "It is impossible to know if the absolute number of people experiencing homelessness is up, or if we just counted and served more," she said in an ECHO press release.

"The nonprofit community has been very successful at housing folks. Over 1,800 people found permanent housing last year. We just need to scale up these strategies that work," Howard said.

In particular, Howard looks to two strategies to end homelessness in Austin. One is rapid rehousing, an approach that targets individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness for the first time. This group has a history of maintaining housing, but needs assistance to overcome present barriers. By providing financial assistance and services, rapid rehousing promotes stabilization. The other strategy, permanent support housing, is aimed at the chronically homeless – people who have not been able to maintain housing on their own in the past. Permanent support housing offers a network of programs that provide housing and on-site supportive services. To scale up these services, ECHO is looking to the private sector, says Howard. The Pay for Success Initiative uses social impact funding from private investors to fund the upfront costs of building houses and adding capacity for permanent supportive housing.

"When we house people," said Howard, "we show that the community saves money because [people] go to jail less, their health care costs go down, criminal justice costs go down, so the community wins."

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homelessness, ECHO, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, Ann Howard

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