Eradicating homelessness requires a system
Austin is at a pivotal moment in the struggle to eradicate homelessness. As the city's contract with Front Steps, the nonprofit that runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, comes to an end, the city currently awaits responses to its request for information detailing what the next steward of the ARCH will need to provide – whether that be Front Steps or someone new.
The $2.7 million contract would provide two years of shelter services geared toward Housing First shelter principles, emphasizing low-barrier access to the ARCH and case management (all-encompassing services to assist clients in every facet of navigating the homeless system) for everyone who walks in – a far cry from the roughly one-third of people who get access to those services today. (The rest are left waiting their turn.) About 7,000 Austinites experience homelessness each year, many of whom live near the ARCH and the other services in that Downtown area. Case management for everyone is an expensive proposition, but one that advocates seem to agree is the best way to get people into – and actually have them be able to stay in – supportive housing.
"What if it was a triage center, so that you went into the ARCH, and you were only there for a day or two?" theorized Mayor Steve Adler, when we spoke on Monday. "You had the coordinated assessment, people talked to you, [found] out what you needed; they mapped out your plan to best suit your needs, and then you got moved into a home and then you started services. As opposed to trying to get people services when they're not in a home. It's just a lot harder for it to be effective."
As explained in a report released last week by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which looked closely at the ARCH, people in a Housing First model "access housing more quickly and are more likely to remain stably housed" because they aren't forced to go through as many hoops – behavioral or substance abuse classes, for instance – before being seen by a case manager.
The NAEH report also promoted the concept of lowering barriers to ARCH access, noting that while the ARCH is generally run on a low-barrier model, there remain a few administrative changes that could further open the doors. The report recommends ending policies that make people leave at the crack of dawn and line up to get a bed each night, two policies that turn people away. The city has indicated that any new contractor will be expected to handle outreach outside of the ARCH to the people who camp out on its steps.
Of course the issue here is funding, which is why Adler has spent the past year promoting what he calls his "Downtown Puzzle" plan, which would leverage an expansion of the Austin Convention Center to extract Hotel Occupancy Tax funding to in part pay for housing assistance and other programs to help people experiencing homelessness. Another part of that is an extension of the Waller Creek Tax Increment Finance Zone, which would add $30 million. And, before departing for its July recess, Council approved a historic $250 million in affordable housing, something that, if approved by voters in November, could help chip away at the problem. "It's us being creative enough to come up with the money that we recognize is necessary to really do this right," Adler said.
That's music to the ears of Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, which just this spring released its Action Plan to End Homelessness, which preaches a community-wide approach to solving the problem that involves big spending from public and private partners. Howard said she and other advocates have been calling for this increased financial support for years, and that it should begin sooner rather than later. All the engagement surrounding the effort sparked "a moment in time" that has the possibility for real results, if the city puts in the investment required.
Council has an opportunity to take action as soon as budget talks begin next month. Howard pointed to the $2.7 million figure in the current RFP as being the same as the current budget – not enough by a long shot. She believes Council should increase that number for the next fiscal year, as it steps into a new ARCH era. "No one program or project or one entity solves the problem," Howard said. "This requires a system, and this shelter is a component of that system, and there has to be resources all around it."
The RFP solicitation period ends July 24, but Council won't be back for a regular meeting until Aug. 9.
An earlier version of this story reported in error that the city had released its request for proposal for the ARCH, when in fact it has only released a request for information, which is still subject to public engagement. That comment period closes on July 24, and the formal request for qualifications should be out in August.