Austin's Next Shot at Ending Homelessness

Thanks to an infusion of philanthropic cash, the city and its iTeam embark on a new effort

A homeless camp on Ninth Street (by Jana Birchum)

"It didn't used to be like this," says Judy, who last lived on the street back in the Eighties. "I was having a grand adventure being homeless, and I was having fun and had guys taking care of me. My significant other at the time didn't think rent was an important thing." He was also using heroin, and eventually Judy and her 18-month-old baby left for a year or so in the shelter-and-services system of the early Nineties, and then luckily got into housing via Section 8 that she's been in for 24 years. But now, "new managers have taken over, we're seeing the regentrification again, and I'm not secure at all. Now it's out of my hands, and I'm scared I'll be homeless again."

Judy met her current partner Bill, who has spent the last six years on the streets and in treatment and briefly in supportive housing, at the Homeless Navigation Center at Sunrise Community Church on Man­chaca Road. From Sunrise, the pair recently ventured into nearby encampments with a used suitcase from Goodwill filled with toiletries to distribute to people living there. "They were so excited and told [us] what they really needed – insect repellent, maybe mosquito netting, wipes," said Judy. Sadly, the suitcase was promptly stolen from Sunrise, but Judy is committed to trying again. "If it were just Bill and I, we'd still be just thinking about it. But it was these energetic kids who made it happen."

Like the ARCH, too many in Austin are on what the iTeam calls a “deteriorating path.”

Those "energetic kids" are members of the iTeam, staffers and fellows in the city's Innovation Office, who since last fall, backed by a $1.25 million grant from Bloom­berg Philanthropies, have in Mayor Steve Adler's words "help[ed] us tackle problems in new ways that reflect who we are in Austin, and ... experiment with new ways to house the homeless." More specifically, in its own words, the iTeam "has worked with individuals and partners across the city of Austin to understand homelessness in Austin from the perspective of people living those experiences."

Defining its purpose as to "solve for homelessness," rooted in design and systems thinking, and taking many of its operational cues from the tech world, the iTeam doesn't shy away from disruption as a goal. Its work is well-timed in an Austin that is increasingly ready and willing to flip the script on homelessness. "In the short term, no one thing that any of us has done has solved the problem," says Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Com­mun­i­ty Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). "But this is a moment in time where we're bringing together different technologies and sectors and systems, and I can say that nobody's working harder than Austin on this."

Sucked up in the System

Hard work here is nothing new; generations of Austinites have broken a sweat sheltering and feeding and serving, managing and often policing, and now housing the city's unhoused population. Since the No Sit/No Lie era of the Eighties and Nineties, these men and women and children are less often seen by the city of Austin as nuisances and "Dragworms" and "gutter punks," and more often as neighbors and friends. The ad hoc and pervious system that serves them was born of good intentions, misconceptions, much fear and more compassion, and a lot of path dependence, which "requires the patience of Job and the heroism of people who work day in and out for minimal salary," says Kerry O'Connor, the city's chief innovation officer and sponsor of the iTeam's work.

The same is true in other cities. "The business model for solving homelessness has to have boundaries to make it solvable," says O'Connor. "But Austin is different; we have so many different resources that go beyond one agency or association or collection of nonprofits. We have city resources, relationships with neighborhoods, health services, digital inclusion, libraries and parks, everything."

One of the iTeam's research projects helped shake the city data tree to track how much we really pay to serve people living without shelter, given that "at least 20 City departments are involved with or impacted by the issue of homelessness." That's from one of three reports the Office of the City Auditor issued starting late last year, whose findings – lack of coordination, lack of accountability, lack of resources and thus failure to meet the city's needs – were surprising to pretty much nobody.

iTeam members (clockwise from top) Sarah Rodriguez, Mickey Lanning, Maura Newell, and Taylor Cook. Not shown: Lincoln Neiger, Titania Veda, and Katherine Duong.

"When we brought all the different departments together, that was really our aha moment," says interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley, who oversees the newly coordinated city effort called for in the audit reports. "The most important part was us recognizing who was spending what and how much and when. Internal departments were all spending dollars on important things, but not everyone knew who was doing what."

And that's just inside the city proper. Multiply that outward to all the people and organizations and jurisdictions that respond to homelessness, and it feels a misnomer to call what we do a "system." Yet everybody does, including the folks who live it. "People keep getting sucked up in the system," says one of Judy and Bill's fellow members of the iTeam's Homelessness Advisory Committee. "They go from place to place and get the services they need, but they've given up any hope of ever getting out of the system."

The city and ECHO's new Action Plan to End Homelessness, released in April and then re-released at a community meeting-cum-pep rally in late July, aims to produce a real system delivering rapid response, prevention, housing, and support, while addressing disparities and "building community commitment from both the public and private sectors." That last part gestures toward the additional $30 million or so per year ECHO projects to be needed to achieve "functional zero" homelessness by 2020, and then maintain it.

That's pretty much twice the existing level of federal, state, and local funding specifically dedicated to homelessness in Austin (which, as Hensley suggests, is less than is actually spent), and that kind of cash is not readily available from taxpayers alone. "It would be terribly unfair to say it's the city of Austin's sole responsibility," says Bill Brice of the Downtown Austin Alliance, which invests its private-sector members' funds in homelessness strategies, notably "hard assets" inside and outside of Down­town, such as the Community First! Village and Housing First Oak Springs. "We've seen in other cities that it takes private involvement and investment and leadership. But different private-sector entities will have different areas of focus where they want to invest. Some may say 'We want to help the people on the street' and would give to front-line shelter and services."

The city's General Fund accounts for nearly half of existing dedicated funding, and "there's a lot of questions we've been asking," says Hensley. "Is it working? Have we been giving out money and not getting results? We also realized we have a lot of different funders, and we pulled them together to ask what they were doing. If we could agree on what needs to be funded first and pool our resources to their highest and best use, we could have a big collective impact."

Now, yes, we have done this before. Since 1985, the city, the Community Advancement Network, and now ECHO have produced at least five different plans to "fight," and then "address," and now "end" homelessness. (This reporter's very first Chronicle story, in 1991, involved what was termed even back then a "crisis" in Downtown homelessness.) At the July ECHO event, Adler claimed that Austin is "an innovative city that gets things done, and done quickly." Well, maybe we are now. Then again, less than 24 hours later, the mayor pulled the plug on CodeNEXT, so maybe not.

The User Experience

Why didn't the previous plans and efforts work, and how did we end up backing into a "system" that manages homelessness without solving it? The iTeam has some thoughts, noted on its project website:

• "They lack[ed] the perspective of a real human experiencing homelessness. Ser­vices were not designed from the point of view of those people who would use them, and people experiencing homelessness were not involved in service design or policy­making."

• "They treat[ed] homelessness as a problem for individual people rather than as a challenge that entire communities must address. No previous strategy has taken into account all of the influences on people at the structural, institutional, relationship, and individual levels that contribute to their homelessness."

The Homelessness Advisory Committee is one of many iTeam research efforts and project prototypes that flow directly from engaging those with "lived experience." Other actors seeking to improve or change the system emphasize the impact of this work. "The iTeam has taught the community to, over and over again, involve the people that have been experiencing homelessness," says Howard. "And I appreciate that. It's a game changer."

Says Hensley, "The input we got via the iTeam was really eye-opening. Not all persons experiencing homelessness are uneducated about their options or want to be on the street. We need to respond to them while remembering that any of us can experience homelessness."

Even the city of Austin itself was surprised to find out how much time and money it spends responding to homelessness. Multiply that out to the entire collection of agencies, nonprofits, and others doing the same, and it’s hard to call what we have a “system.” Yet everybody does, including the people using it.
“For every 100 people who are homeless, there are 100 different reasons and 100 different solutions.” – APD Asst. Chief Justin Newsom

For the iTeam itself, understanding the lived experience was a no-brainer and essential to its design process. "We started, as an IT company would, by talking to the users," says iTeam project manager Taylor Cook. "Which had never been done in a deliberate and systematic way before. They have a lot of knowledge of what leads to homelessness and what allows you to exit, and why a lot of people do fall back into it. Even those who've been housed, there's a lot of stress there. Your landlord may change their mind. There's not much of a safety net there. The best indicator of future homelessness is past homelessness."

Even before the award of the Bloomberg grant, the Innovation Office had jumped into the issue at the request of then-City Manager Marc Ott, who in 2015 had been implored by the DAA to do something about the increasingly dire conditions in and around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. Their research, collaboration with public and nonprofit stakeholders, and study of best practices elsewhere (including a site visit to Toronto), spawned the Homelessness Outreach Street Team, which brings together APD, EMS, behavioral health specialists and social workers to engage with people on the street Downtown, offering immediate help where needed and connections to services where possible.

At the time, recounts O'Connor, "a lot of the solutions being offered would further criminalize homelessness, carried legal and human-rights risks, and didn't impact what [Brice, at the DAA] implicitly understands is a system dynamic requiring a systems solution, rather than just moving problems to another alleyway. He has the tenacity to ask for that systems solution, and having that kind of advocate is important."

Says Brice, "HOST represented an open-mindedness to doing something different, and people told us it was the first new approach they'd seen in 20 years. There's still work to be done to map effectively the entire homeless services system, determine where the gaps are, making sure they're addressed and funded, and making sure people are moving through and out of the system instead of languishing in it."

As a pilot program, HOST has had no dedicated city budget resources, which current City Man­ager Spencer Cronk has addressed with $3.1 million in new funding for homelessness programs in the proposed FY 2019 city budget, including $1 million for HOST. "When we talk about homelessness, much of our investment is building upon what we've learned from [HOST]," Cronk announced upon releasing the budget.

"We've had to take away from other duties to meet HOST's mission, and it's still been wildly successful," says APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, whose Central Patrol Bureau includes the Downtown Area Com­mand and HOST. "It's not a panacea, but it's been great news for the person who receives its services. People have been housed because of HOST, wounds have been addressed, ID cards have been replaced, physical and mental health care has been received. It's done a huge amount of good for a small amount of people."

Newsom must manage expectations for HOST since both the team and the system lack capacity and resources. "For every 100 people who are homeless, there are 100 different reasons and 100 different solutions. But a lot of it really comes down to a lack of beds. We're a city of 1 million people with one homeless shelter, and there's just no room at the inn. We're dealing with human beings who have no other place to go; if they did, they'd be there. We try to connect people with services, but there's just not anywhere to send them. And then their money or medications run out and they're stuck in this cycle."

As the DAA and most everyone else plainly sees, many get stuck right in front of the ARCH, and the iTeam's research, folded into a broader assessment by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, shaped the city's current rebidding of the ARCH operations contract. "ARCH is hell on Earth," said one interviewee, echoing many iTeam informants with tales of K2 addictions, bedbugs, rampant theft, and bona fide murder and mayhem. And the city agrees: "We need to fix the problems at the ARCH," says Hensley. "It's not working."

"More Than a House and a Job"

Like the ARCH itself, too many in Austin are on what the iTeam calls a "deteriorating path," where "people get sicker when services are not grounded in their realities." They avoid the ARCH and other Downtown service providers for their own safety; their mental health and substance abuse issues become worse, those with jobs or income lose them (or lose services), and they rely on each other's street knowledge to keep alive. Neither the police nor the health care system nor housing providers have the right tools to help them, and "in the absence of collaboration tools, service providers' informal relationships get things done."

Because capacity is so limited, the most vulnerable get helped first, and the rest become sicker until they're weak enough to get pushed or pulled to the front of the line. The iTeam recommends a "strengths-based assessment" that, as O'Connor puts it, avoids "only measuring the 'bad' baseline and deficiencies and vulnerabilities, which sets the tone." LifeWorks, which is Austin's lead provider addressing youth homelessness, uses both strengths-based tools and a lived-experience advisory panel. "I'd like to think," says O'Connor, "that adults still have that potential and promise in us until the very end."

Kerry O’Connor, the city’s chief innovation officer and sponsor of the iTeam’s work

Even when people get services that can help, they can travel a "relapsing path" if they don't have adequate support for social, emotional, and mental needs – some of which may be met by friends in the street community whom they're reluctant or even unable to leave. "It takes more than a house and a job to make us happy, successful, productive people," says Brice. "There's a qualitative side. What do we need as human beings to live satisfying lives? Things like being part of a community or expressing ourselves through creativity. The iTeam has done a tremendous amount of qualitative work to understand things like 'Why are people outside of the ARCH instead of inside? Are they finding shelter and services elsewhere, and if not, why don't they?' Filling in those gaps in knowledge helps us understand why some programs work and others don't."

The best-case scenario – the "resilient path" – occurs, in the iTeam's words, as "people bounce back when their needs are holistically met." This involves having time to learn and practice new habits, connecting with untapped resources in the community, and being able to make progress on some goals while waiting for others (particularly housing itself) to be met. In the current system, these opportunities tend to be rare and exceptional.

The major cash infusion envisioned by ECHO is largely for permanent supportive housing to sustain people past homelessness. In the meantime, many iTeam projects aim to help make homelessness easier for both users and providers, thus building life skills, social capital, and more seamless access to services. Some are so simple that it's a little disheartening to think of them as innovations – like an accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive list of providers (no, this doesn't exist), or a navigation checklist to help those entering the system (nope, that doesn't either), or phone booths allowing people to reach family and friends, employers, and services on their own. This last one was piloted at the ARCH, but the new model for the shelter reserves daytime access to registered sleepers only, which means fewer than 200 people a day would have access to it. (You can, however, download instructions from the iTeam website to build your own.)

Other projects are more creative and directly reflect lived experience, like Judy and Bill's toiletries delivery service, or a 16-page "coping zine" produced by the Home­lessness Advisory Committee and filled with peer-to-peer insights, or an 11x17 "public engagement guide" poster that explains "how to help people experiencing homelessness, as alternatives to doing nothing or donating to panhandlers." And yes, one of the things you can do is "show kindness."

Then there's the real big stuff, like a citywide "empathy building campaign" to reduce fear and stigma around homelessness, or a "Life University" where volunteers (including those with lived experience) teach others essential skills for success, or the concepts produced by the ­iTeam's "Service Hustle" – a weekend event bringing together 40 design professionals and 20 people with lived experience. A similar hackathon-ish endeavor in July tapped local blockchain pros to work out ways that trendy technology could be used to store IDs and other vital documents that often get lost, stolen, or strayed on the street. (That's in pursuit of a different Bloom­berg funding opportunity, the Mayors Challenge.)

The iTeam's projects will need to be owned by someone going forward if they're to fly, but many actors in the system are eager to have this work to do. One example is Austin-Travis County EMS, which took and ran with an iTeam prototype called "C4" – the Collaborative Care Communica­tions Center, which provides a single point of contact for first responders to connect to service providers. "We'd already been wanting a system that can seamlessly, rapidly get information into the field that we need in encounters with those experiencing homelessness," said ATCEMS Assistant Chief Andy Hofmeister. "The iTeam identified this as a need as well, and we jumped on it. It added some validation to what we were trying to accomplish; we realized we're not alone. The team has been a huge help."

There's no time like the present to get this kind of buy-in; as Adler told the ECHO event, "What you are feeling now is a rare moon-shot moment when everything is aligned. If we don't do this right and do this now, we'll be missing our best opportunity in decades." Or, as O'Connor puts it, "A lot of things are conspiring to create this moment, and in the best possible way we need to keep conspiring. We need to be part of the compassion conspiracy."

Reelin' in the Years: A Decades-Long Struggle to End Homelessness

Four decades of anti-homelessness plans, listed with the organizations involved:

1985: "Austin's Five-Step Plan to Fight Homelessness"
Austin's first "Task Force on the Homeless," formed by the Austin City Council

1996: "A Comprehensive Plan for Addressing Homelessness in Austin/Travis County"
Community Action Network's Homeless Task Force

2004: "Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Austin/Travis County
Community Action Network's Homeless Task Force, with Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, and JP Results Consulting

2010: "The Plan to End Community Homelessness in Austin-Travis County"
Ending Community Homelessness Coalition

2017: "Austin's Action Plan to End Homelessness"
Ending Community Homeless Coalition and City of Austin

2018: "A Coordinated Community Plan to Prevent & End Youth Homelessness"
Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and LifeWorks

Source: City of Austin

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Steve Adler, Kerry O'Connor, Bill Brice, homelessness, iTeam, Innovation Team, Ann Howard

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