Austin won a grant potentially worth $1.5 million over three years from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charity to bolster the efforts to reduce homelessness downtown, City Hall announced Wednesday.
Officials said the money will go toward hiring four or five people to improve the city’s ability to collect, analyze and share data about its homeless population in a bid to improve services to those residents. It will also aim to improve communication and the flow of information between city agencies and charities, such as the downtown Austin Resource Center for the Homeless shelter and the Salvation Army.
An estimated 7,100 people were homeless in Austin in 2016, a number that was roughly on par with the 2015 figure, according to counts kept by the homeless advocacy group, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, better known as Austin ECHO. However, that count is up significantly from the estimated 6,100 homeless people in 2014.
“This grant will help us tackle problems in new ways that reflect who we are in Austin, and I’m excited to see what can come from this,” Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement.
The new data and collection team will be linked up with the city’s Homelessness Outreach Street Team, another high-profile effort launched by city and county leaders in 2016 to better address downtown homelessness.
The Bloomberg Philanthropies grant comes just months after the federal government certified that Austin has functionally ended veteran homelessness in the city. The designation means the city has established a system to ensure there is sufficient housing for veterans and that future periods of vet homelessness are brief and rare.
A coalition of nonprofits and agencies also recently announced they exceeded their goal to house 50 homeless youths over the course of a 100-day challenge, the first milestone in an effort to end youth homelessness in Austin.
The new Bloomberg-funded “innovation team” will help the police officers, paramedics, counselors and social workers involved with the Outreach Team — but by working on their spreadsheets, not the streets.
“The police officers’ job is not to fix their data problem, but they need the data to better do their job,” said Kerry O’Connor, who has been the city’s chief innovation officer since March 2014. “So we’re giving them the support they need to be effective.”
Currently, she said, the police, paramedics and social workers all use different computer systems that struggle to talk with each other, making it more difficult to track the needs of those who are homeless and match them up with the right assistance.
This team will aim to break down those walls and use the newly available data to identify “holes” in the city’s network of social services and charities that homeless people slip through.
“This is one tiny sliver of a much larger program,” O’Conner said. “We always want to be conscious that this isn’t the end-all and be-all of homelessness.”
Other cities receiving a similar Bloomberg grant Thursday to tackle local problems include Anchorage, Alaska, Baltimore, Detroit and Durham, N.C., as well as Be’er Sheva, Israel and Toronto, Canada.