Austin’s Broken Homeless Support System

Austin would seem to be “home” to many homeless individuals. According to the Austin ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) Website, as of January 2015’s homeless point-in-time (PIT) count, it was estimated that there were 1,877 homeless individuals in Austin.1 As one who was raised in Austin, the site of a homeless person flying a sign near the freeway or panhandling from a sidewalk is not new to me.

Before beginning my work in the field of Homeless Services, I would often make an effort to assist panhandlers with some cash or food. For a while I kept a box of snack sized bags of chips and crackers in my back seat for the purpose of having something to offer individuals flying signs at intersections along the I-35 frontage road. On more than one occasion, my gift of food was not welcome. In spite of what the various signs said, these individuals were looking for money.

I understand now that there is no shortage of free meals in our city. Just to name a few resources for free meals in Austin, there are Caritas, the Salvation Army, Angel House, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Saint Mary Cathedral, and Mission Possible, the organization responsible for “Church Under the Bridge”.

If the need is not food, the money is going somewhere else. It would seem common for some homeless individuals to rent hotel rooms for the night when they make enough panhandling during the day. This draw to temporary housing via hotel stays would seem to explain why the ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) would often appear abandoned near the beginning of each month. Generally, SSI checks are distributed around this time every month.2 According to Alllaw.com, the most an individual can receive each month of the year of 2015 in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is $733.3 A quick Google search will tell you how far $733 will go when it comes to providing shelter via hotels in Austin. And as soon as the government funded vacation from the streets expires, homeless recipients of SSI often end up back in the shelter.

According to Joe Olivieri, homeless shelters in Austin provided shelter to 1,453 people in July of last year.4 The 2014 PIT count estimated there were 1,987 homeless individuals in our city at the time.5 This left an estimated 534 without a place in any shelter during July of last year. It would appear the current system is filling about 3/4 the need for shelter.

According to their Website, Front Steps, the organization with whom the responsibility of running and managing the ARCH lies, has an annual budget of $3.4 million.6 With such a budget one might think Front Steps would be able to provide at least the services laid out on the “ARCH Day Resource Center” page of their website: http://www.frontsteps.org/what-we-do/arch/basic-needs/. But a visit to the ARCH tells a different story. At last check, the majority of washers in the ARCH laundry room were out of order. It is difficult to make phone calls from the “Resource desk” as a result of faulty equipment. The staff at the ARCH has been a revolving sea of faces in recent months. According to current shelter staff, they generally receive little in way of monetary compensation for the abuse they receive from many of their clients. These “CSS” (Client Service Specialist) staff would seem, on many days, to hold the shelter together, all the while working with dysfunctional equipment and a lack of training. So what’s the alternative?

According to the state of Utah’s 2014 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, “Housing First is an approach that places the minimum number of requirements or restrictions on persons to promote housing placement and retention”. Utah has adopted this model and, as of 2014, cases of homelessness had decreased 72 percent since 2005.7 “Since its founding, housing retention rates have remained at 85 – 90 percent even among individuals who have not succeeded in other programs”.8

As drug and alcohol abuse as well as mental illness would seem to contribute to financial instability and ultimately homelessness, the presence of homeless individuals downtown leads to behavior many of us may find offensive. Such behavior may even seem threatening. The selling and using of illegal drugs would seem commonplace outside the ARCH. I personally have been threatened just for walking on the sidewalk outside the ARCH. This behavior would seem to be a reason for some pedestrians to feel the need to avoid that block of 7th street between Red River and Neches.

Law enforcement officials do what they can. They come through and disperse crowds of homeless people gathered outside the ARCH. But the act is often about as futile as shooing flies from a piece of fruit. As soon as law enforcement leaves, activities outside the ARCH ensue as quickly as they ceased. Officers may ticket individuals for simply sitting on the sidewalk. According to Pat Hartman, the “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance enables those who are in line for concert tickets or those lined up to watch a parade to sit for extended periods of time, while homeless individuals with medical conditions are granted the right to sit for only up to 30 minutes as long as they have documentation of a medical condition.9 Surely it is fair for we, the healthy, upstanding citizens of Austin to not have to step over sickly or stoned individuals in commute to our offices. But this “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance would seem to make it illegal to be homeless. Is this logical? Forget for a moment about the apparent cruelty of legally punishing a person for being homeless. Does it make sense to fine a person who has only committed a crime because he or she hasn’t enough money to not commit said crime? A fine cannot work to deter an action if no alternative action exists for the perpetrator. But, at least these tickets bring the city some revenue. As cold as that may sound, such income may be one of very few redeeming qualities of our current system.

Opponents to the Housing First model like President and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, Ralph DaCosta Nunez, name issues like substance abuse and mental illness as barriers to long-term housing.10 Others have problems with the model as it would seem to reward things like drug addiction and alcohol abuse.11 One major objection to giving to homeless individuals in general would seem to be the correlation between substance abuse and homelessness. Why should I give my hard earned money to one who is going to use it to buy drugs or alcohol? But, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Substance abuse is both a cause and a result of homelessness, often arising after people lose their housing”.12 According to Amanda Russell, harm reduction techniques used with the Housing first model are more effective than traditional substance abuse treatment and other methods of alleviating homelessness.13 According to a 2003 study conducted by Walter R. McDonald & Associates, Inc. (WRMA), and its partner Abt Associates Inc., the housing first model effectively meets the needs of homeless individuals with mental illness.14

According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, the average life expectancy for homeless individuals is 50 years. This pales in comparison to the reported 78-year life expectancy of housed individuals.15 ECHO has recently introduced a new system for prioritizing housing assistance to those in greatest need. This “Coordinated Assessment”, or “Coordinated Entry”, process assigns each client a vulnerability score and provides assistance to clients with the highest vulnerability scores first. Although Coordinated Assessment would seem to be aimed in aiding in providing assistance to those in greatest need, those most likely to die from their homelessness, the assessment process is largely reliant upon a client’s willingness to be honest with his or her answers to the various questions used to assign one a vulnerability score. As clients tend to understand higher scores lead to faster assistance, honesty often goes out the window in pursuit of efforts to give the “right” answers. Further, the assigning of priority as a result of a client’s vulnerability score, be it accurate or not, would seem to be creating an extra, very high hurdle for those who do not fit the criteria to be placed at the top of their vulnerability range. Although the ECHO team would seem to be working toward adding additional housing programs to their collection of organizations pulling from their large list of assessed clients, the need currently far outweighs the resources available.

Of course we know homelessness costs more than the lives of vagrants. Who do you think pays for these monthly SSI checks? According to Community Action Network, The City of Austin and Travis County together spent over $6.8 million on social services for homeless individuals in 2001 alone.16 But the monetary cost of homelessness far exceeds the money we spend on homeless services. According to Jennifer Perlman and John Parvensky, a 2003 study of 100 chronically homeless individuals’ participation in a housing first program showed significant cost effectiveness.17 The term chronically homeless is defined by HUD as “either (1) an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, OR (2) an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years”.18 Over a four-year period, two years of homelessness and two years of participation in a housing first program, these 100 chronically homeless individuals showed significant cost benefit for the housing first model. In the second two years of monitoring, the housing first years, clients’ emergency costs ended up at about 72.95 percent less than they were during the two homeless years. This ended up being about $31,545 per individual.

According to the Greendoors Web-site, “Nearly one-third of all visits to the emergency room are made by people struggling with chronic homelessness”. Further, 80% of all visits to the emergency room by homeless patients are for illnesses that could have been treated with preventative care.19 As cited in a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty entitled “No Safe Place – the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, the Utah Housing and Community Development Division reported in 2013 that homelessness cost taxpayers about $16,670 per homeless individual each year in emergency room visits and jail stays.20

On the other hand, providing a homeless individual an apartment and social worker costs about $11,000 per year.17 So let’s apply this model to our city. If the last PIT count reported approximately 1,877 homeless individuals in our city, we could say ending homelessness in Austin will cost us about $20,647,000 or $11,000 (apartment and social worker) times 1,877 (homeless individuals). This compares to the price tag of our current system, $38,089,590, which breaks down as follows: $6,800,000 (social services) plus 31,289,590 or 1,877 (homeless individuals) times $16,670 (emergency care and jail). So what will we do with this yearly $17,442,590 surplus?

As of 7/23/2015, the waiting list for methadone treatment in Austin shows openings beginning in April of 2016. Likewise, the waiting list for Safe Place, the domestic violence shelter in Austin, shows openings beginning a few months from now. The common response to those seeking help would seem to be to tell them to wait. Our current system is broken. But we have the blueprints for a system that works.

In 2012, the Mobile Loaves and Fishes program obtained 27 acres on Hog Eye Rd via private donations. It was here that Mobile Loaves and Fishes began development on the Community First Village. It is projected that this village will be means to providing housing for up to 250 homeless individuals. Rent in the Community First Village will range from $120 to $450 per month and many job opportunities will be provided on site.21 According to the Community First Website, the village will also provide support services for those with physical and mental illnesses.22 This is a great start. But the figures still leave approximately 1,627 homeless individuals in the Austin area.

So what are we waiting for? Do we want to continue attempting to apply this broken system to our homeless problem or do we want to take the lead from others who are already doing it better and save ourselves money and the lives of members of our homeless population?

1. Austin Travis County 2015 Homelessness Point-in-Time Count (PIT) Results. Austinecho.org, http://austinecho.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/For-Press-Release-2015-PIT-Results.pdf
2. Schedule Of Social Security Benefit Payments 2015. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10031.pdf
3. SSI Disability Benefits and Requirements. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/disability/a-guide-ssi-disability-benefits.html
4. Olivieri, J. (2014, July 21). Lack of available housing a challenge for advocates of Austin’s homeless. Retrieved from http://communityimpact.com/2014/07/21/lack-of-available-housing-a-challenge-for-advocates-of-austins-homeless-2/
5. Austin Travis County 2015 Homelessness Point-in-Time Count (PIT) Results. Austinecho.org, http://austinecho.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/For-Press-Release-2015-PIT-Results.pdf
6. FAQs. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.frontsteps.org/who-we-are/faqs/
7. COMPREHENSIVE REPORT ON HOMELESSNESS. (2014). Retrieved from: https://jobs.utah.gov/housing/scso/documents/homelessness2014.pdf
8. Housing First Model. (2015). Retrieved from https://pathwaystohousing.org/housing-first-model
9. Hartman, P. (2011, May 31). Austin’s Revised Sit-Lie Ordinance. Retrieved from http://www.housethehomeless.org/austins-revised-sit-lie-ordinance/
10. LaMarche, P. (2014, January 16). Housing First Doesn’t Work: The Homeless Need Community Support. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pat-lamarche/housing-first-doesnt-homelessness_b_4611639.html
11. Graves, F., & Sayfan, H. (2007, June 24). First Things First. Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/06/24/first_things_first/?page=full
12. Substance Abuse and Homelessness. (2009, July 1). Retrieved from http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/addiction.pdf
13. Housing first and Harm Reduction: Effective Models For Substance Abuse Treatment with Individuals who are Homeless. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.northsidehousing.org/pdf/amanda.pdf
14. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research. (2007, July 1). The Applicability of Housing First Models to Homeless Persons with Serious Mental Illness. Retrieved from http://www.huduser.org/portal/publications/hsgfirst.pdf
15. The Hard, Cold Facts About the Deaths of Homeless People. (2006). Retrieved August 14, 2015, from http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/HardColdFacts.pdf
16. HOMELESSNESS OVERVIEW. (2011, September 6). Retrieved from http://canatx.org/homeless/2001Assessment/Overview.htm
17. Denver Housing First Collaborative Cost Benefit Analysis and Program Outcomes Report. (2006, December 11). Retrieved from http://usich.gov/usich_resources/research/denver_housing_first_collaborative_cost_benefit_analysis_and_program_outcom/
18. Office of Community Planning and Development – Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs. (2007, September). Defining Chronic Homelessness – A Technical Guide for HUD Programs. Retrieved from https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/DefiningChronicHomeless.pdf
19. The Cost of Homelessness Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.greendoors.org/facts/cost.php
20. No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nlchp.org/documents/No_Safe_Place
21. Thomas, D. (2014, September 26). 27 Acre Community First Village Ends Austin Homelessness. Retrieved from http://austinot.com/community-first-village
22. Community First! Village. (2015). Retrieved from: http://mlf.org/community-first/

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