Austin’s Plan to Address Homelessness Could become a National Model

…And the state would make a great partner.

The City of Austin remains laser focused on public safety and health. Last Thursday, we preserved all law enforcement tools to act on public safety threats and public health hazards.

But what do we do with folks experiencing homelessness that are presenting neither such risks or hazards?  The person sitting up against the building, dealing with swirling demons the rest of us can’t see, needs our help.  The answer is not to arrest them. Making a crime of merely being in distress is both ineffective and inconsistent with the character of this city.

We need to be able to tell people not only where they can’t be, but also where they can be.  We need places where homeless folks can be safe and surrounded by social workers and others getting them the help and support they need.

We have a year and half before the legislature meets again.  In that time, I hope and trust that Austin will develop policies and a program that will make the State proud and something the legislature will want to scale up to cities across the State. 

Having the State as a constructive partner as we do this would help.

Let’s look at our challenge in context. Seattle has 200,000 fewer people than Austin, but six times as many folks experiencing homelessness.  We have about 1150 folks unsheltered on our streets.  That’s a size of number that we should be able to do something about.  We need to get these folks safe, legal places to camp so we can get them into shelters, and then with jobs and medical care, and into homes, so many if not most can get back into a productive life.

We’ll do this even though the State has made it harder for us.  We have some great pilot programs that we need to scale in our city:  we’ve gotten to net effective zero veteran homelessness and last year we took half the homeless children off our streets.  But the legislature’s revenue caps imposed on cities will make it harder for us to scale those programs here.  We’re going to figure it out and get the job done even though the State is working against us.