The Austin Chronicle

Austin at Large: Stupid Games, Ugly Prizes

With the lives of Austin’s unhoused poor at stake, the city prepares to do something

By Mike Clark-Madison, May 7, 2021, News

As the old political saw goes, when you're explaining, you're losing. For more than a year, City Hall has been trying to explain to people that its strategies to end homelessness are not failing, even though homelessness is visible all over Austin. This was not a good place to be campaign-wise; by the time supporters of the city's policies could get voters' attention and persuade or mobilize them to turn out against Proposition B, it was much too late.

That's pretty much all one needs to know, or remember going forward, about the May 1 election outcome. It still required Prop B's backers, who were mostly GOP donors and operatives even if the measure itself enjoyed bipartisan support, to work really hard, for longer than they had planned to, and drop a money bomb on voters to get it approved. Public unease about encampments did not all by itself produce this outcome; Republican critics of Austin lefty politics manufactured much of this controversy for their own political ends, which do not include helping the city's unhoused poor, which the state of Texas could obviously do at any moment if it wished. For them, this is a game, but our unsheltered neighbors will be receiving the ugly prizes.

Going Through The Motions

Many voters who didn't want to align themselves with GOP bullying proclaimed that Prop B would motivate the city to do something about homelessness. This week's Council meeting (May 6) features multiple somethings on the agenda, most posted weeks ago, halfway through early voting, along with a new one to open sanctioned campsites on public land, already considered several times by Council. As you know because you read the Chronicle – and not other outlets who are letting Prop B's backers frame their stories – something is being done. The question is whether it will work.

Even the resolution carried by Council Member Kathie Tovo on sanctioned campsites, added to the agenda this week, recites in detail a host of actions taken by Council and city staff since even before it lifted the camping ban in June 2019. It notes that at that same meeting, Council asked for options for safe, authorized camp and parking sites where people could receive services, which staff later counseled them not to pursue, because they haven't worked as well as hoped in other cities. Instead, Austin soldiered on with its Housing First approach to focus its efforts and resources on creating permanent supportive housing for those in need. Gov. Greg Abbott, you may remember, offered up a chunk of state-owned land for a sanctioned camp, to dunk on Austin, but did nothing to provide it with services and infrastructure. That's mostly come into being at Camp Esperanza through organizing by the residents themselves and support from The Other Ones Foundation, who did what Abbott promised.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the encampments proliferating across Austin – including in locations where camping has never been authorized – were left in place to avoid spreading the disease. That, more than anything, produced the visuals that the Prop B campaign pushed in front of every Austin voter, to which the city tried to respond with a greater sense of urgency with measures like the HEAL (Homeless Encampment Assistance Link) program Council approved in February to do targeted outreach to get unsheltered residents of particularly unpopular (among their housed neighbors) encampments into services and then on the path to housing.

Do It Now, Avoid the Rush

But even that is slow going. A sense of how protracted this has all become can be gathered by looking at the homelessness services contracts with Caritas of Austin, Integral Care, Family Eldercare, and Front Steps that were already on this week's agenda before Prop B prevailed. All told, if all their potential extensions are exercised (which the city's current strategies would suggest they will be), it adds up to $14.7 million. People get sticker shock from these numbers, part of the larger desire for some kind of shortcut that solves homelessness without actually taking each needed step to feed, clothe, shelter, heal, and empower each person on the street, whose needs are being met by nobody else. You should expect to spend tens of millions every year.

These funds will, for the most part, allow these agencies to continue to provide established services under existing agreements, although some of the money is now coming from the CARES Act and some of the recipients of services will be referrals from HEAL outreach. The biggest of these line items, for Front Steps, is to fund the continued operation of the Rodeway Inn, the first motel bought by the city to house the homeless, as a COVID-19 Protective Lodge and then as a "bridge housing" shelter option, again tied in some way to HEAL. If you've been following Council even semi-attentively, you will have heard about all of this before.

Tovo's resolution doesn't mention Satur­day's election, but it does reference the goals of the "summit" held right before the election, where the city and its community partners said they would house 3,000 people within three years. That was understood to require faster action to increase supportive housing capacity than the city's current pace. For sanctioned encampments, Tovo is calling for much faster action, basically demanding that City Manager Spencer Cronk have an action plan with sites, services, and infrastructure needs identified by June 1 for land owned by the city, July 1 for parcels owned by other public sector entities (most notably, Austin ISD).

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