City Council Looks at Homelessness, Climate Change, and Gun Violence

Post-summer Council hits the dais running with 149-Item agenda

Kathie Tovo (Photo by Jana Birchum)

City Council returns today (Thu., Aug. 8) for its first meeting following a summer break filled with fallout from its June 20 move to lift restrictions on camping, sitting, and lying in public. During the break, many council members said they would act in coming months to address concerns over the "quality of life" impacts of the new rules – i.e., the increased visibility of homelessness – while continuing to provide new supports for those living without housing.

This week's 149-Item agenda includes several items relating to homelessness, notably two resolutions brought by Council Member Kathie Tovo. The first would create a local government corporation (LGC) aimed at funding solutions to homelessness in Austin (Item 77). This would operate as a public nonprofit, similar to the Austin Sobering Center that opened last fall, and Tovo envisions it primarily as a fundraising apparatus for the city's initiatives. Private citizens and businesses could donate money, services, and property. The LGC could be authorized to make small expenditures – like hosting a pop-up medical clinic or providing bus passes – but land acquisitions and other large expenses would likely be approved by Council.

Alison Alter (Photo by John Anderson)

The entity's board would include one representative from the Continuum of Care consortium of providers led by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), one from the Downtown Austin Alli­ance, and one from the private sector; City Manager Spencer Cronk can recommend additional board members. At the Council's work session on Tuesday, Aug. 6, Tovo sought to ease fears among service providers that the LGC would compete with them for funding. "We need to exponentially increase the amount of private fundraising we are doing around housing and services," Tovo said. "[The LGC] should be supplementing, not supplanting, other fundraising sources." Tovo's resolution calls for Cronk to incorporate the entity by Nov. 1 and begin accepting applications for its board by year's end.

Tovo's second measure tasks staff with finding locations for 10 water fountains accessible to the public 24 hours a day (Item 71), addressing a need shared by everyone living without housing. These are proposed to be in the city's center – between I-35 and Lamar, from 15th Street to either Lady Bird Lake or (as proposed by CM Ann Kit­chen) Barton Springs Road and Riverside Drive – with one located near the Red River Cultural District and another near the Convention Center and Capital Metro Down­town Station. Cronk is to provide the locations and cost estimates by Sept. 1 so Council can consider allocating funds from the fiscal year 2020 city budget (which includes more than $62 million earmarked for homelessness).

Council is set to consider two one-time payments to the Salvation Army: one not to exceed $1 million to help close a gap of roughly $5 million needed to open the new Rathgeber Center for families with children, and another increasing city funding for the Salvation Army's downtown shelter by $500,000; these are included in Cronk's proposed budget. (While presenting the spending plan on Monday, Cronk announced the hiring of Lori Pampilo Harris as Aus­tin's new Homeless Strategy Officer. Harris comes to Texas from Orlando, Fla., where she advised the mayor on homelessness issues and led the city's response to the Pulse shooting in 2016; she previously spent 14 years with Habitat for Humanity International, including four in Haiti on the recovery effort from the 2010 earthquake. She starts in Austin on Sept. 9; interim HSO Veronica Briseño has moved to lead the Economic Development Department.)

CM Alison Alter brings forth a resolution (Item 78) to declare a "climate emergency," directing Cronk to develop "an accountability and regular reporting structure" to track progress on broad resilience goals across multiple departments. As part of an upcoming update to the Austin Community Climate Plan, the resolution calls for examining the "feasibility of accelerating" existing goals, such as achieving net zero emissions. The resolution also calls for a "community awareness campaign plan" with citizen ambassadors to "educate, guide, and prepare" those most at risk from a changing climate, such as our region's flood- and wildfire-prone neighborhoods. Cronk needs to report back on the accountability piece by Oct. 1; he has until next Feb. 1 to tackle the awareness campaign.

In the wake of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Alter also has an emergency resolution (Item 149) urging local, state, and federal elected officials to take steps to "end gun violence and address the associated public health and public safety crisis." This would add the Council's voice to a growing choir of leaders calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to convene a special legislative session to enact gun control measures. On the Council message board, Alter told her colleagues, "We simply cannot continue to merely rely on words and wishes," and she plans another Item for the Aug. 22 agenda, addressing gun violence at the local level.

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Austin City Council, homelessness, climate change, gun violence, Kathie Tovo, Austin Sobering Center, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, ECHO, Downtown Austin Alliance, Spencer Cronk, Ann Kitchen, Riverside Drive, Red River Cultural District, Convention Center, Capital Metro Downtown Station, Rathgeber Center, Lori Pampilo Harris, Homeless Strategy Officer, Veronica Briseño, Alison Alter

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