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Homeless population goes up for first time in 5 years, count shows

For the first time in five years, the Austin area’s annual homeless count saw an uptick in homeless people in Travis County.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition released preliminary numbers for its annual point-in-time count this month, which showed a 20 percent increase in people experiencing homelessness compared with the same time in 2015.

The number of homeless people tallied in the count had dropped every year since 2012 and reached a low of 1,877 last year. But this year’s preliminary count identified 2,197 people, a considerable increase.

Ann Howard, executive director of the coalition, commonly known as ECHO, said some of the increase in this year’s count could be attributed to the availability of a larger number of volunteers who scoured places where the group knew it would find homeless people.

“But we also cannot ignore the fact that there seem to be more people,” she said. “What we know to be absolutely true is that we don’t have enough of what they need: the right kind of housing, employment and access to treatment for substance abuse.”

The count is only a measure of how many homeless people there are in an area in one day, not of the county’s entire homeless population, but it helps to measure success in the fight against homelessness and is a requirement for receiving federal funds.

Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless who has criticized the count in the past, said this year’s increase underscores what his group sees every day.

“More people are falling into homelessness,” he said. “The economy won’t sustain people in housing.”

Still, Howard said progress has been made.

Last year, nonprofit agencies in the city housed 1,834 homeless people, she said, including hundreds of homeless veterans taken off the streets through a high-profile campaign that involved the mayor’s office and the private sector. That campaign, which aimed to end veteran homelessness in Austin, housed 388 homeless veterans in 2015, according to the mayor’s office.

Howard said she is hopeful that similar partnerships will help drive homeless numbers down in the county and added that she is working with local nonprofit and religious groups toward that goal.

“What we have and what we’re using is working,” she said, “we just need more of it.”

But Austin’s population growth and affordability crisis, she said, are topics that need to be addressed to tackle homelessness. As more people move to Austin, she said, property values rise and living here becomes unaffordable to people at the bottom of the pay scale.

“These are the kinds of conversations that we as a community have to have and recognize that we have got to protect some housing for people with the least ability to find housing,” she said.

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