The Austin City Council on Thursday will be looking to bolster a fledgling city program that reaches out to homeless individuals and hooks them up with services to get them back on track.
The council’s agenda includes a funding arrangement to provide nearly $250,000 for mental health services providers who work on the city’s Homeless Outreach Street Team, or HOST.
HOST — composed of Austin police, emergency medical personnel, mental health care providers, the Downtown Austin Community Court and the Downtown Austin Alliance — took to the streets last June using three mental health professionals from Austin Travis County Integral Care. Darilynn Cardona-Beiler, associate director for Adult Behavioral Health at Integral Care, said those “outreach clinicians” had been borrowed from other programs.
As the program reaches its first anniversary, the city is expected to make $242,354 available for Integral Care. The money would pay for the clinicians and the additional hours worked by someone who would prescribe medications to individuals in the field.
The measure will shift the cost of the employees from Integral Care to the city, as was agreed when the program kicked off.
The program is still considered a pilot, but Assistant Police Chief Jason Dusterhoft said he and other leaders in the Police Department hope to see it continue.
“As of right now it is indefinite,” Dusterhoft said. “We believe we are seeing some great success with it, but we are also being challenged with a thin department.”
Eventually, city leaders will have to decide if the HOST program will stick around, but even with limited resources, Dusterhoft said the team has made substantial headway in Austin’s homeless community.
According to Integral Care records, the HOST program connected with 1,749 people from June 1, 2016, through April 30. Of those, 115 were connected with mental health care, 104 were connected with housing programs, and 121 were connected with health care providers.
“Working together as a team has really given us opportunity to do things we were not able to do before,” Cardona-Beiler said.
She said health care providers are going out to where homeless individuals congregate — such as around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, under bridges and near West Campus — to provide immediate care that often before had been delayed.
Dusterhoft said the estimated homeless population in Austin is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people, so getting people off the streets and linked up with services that keep them off could substantially reduce that number.
“Eighty percent of them aren’t people who want to be on the street,” Dusterhoft said. “If they can have a semblance of a normal life, they want it.”
Dusterhoft said leaders associated with the program gathered for a panel discussion recently and expressed their hopes for the program.
“Everyone at the table basically said this is the one time in their career we have the opportunity to really change what is happening, and dealing with the central problem instead of putting Band-Aids on it,” he said.
The HOST program is just one way city leaders are focusing efforts on Austin’s homeless population. Austin police increased patrols around the ARCH and concentrated efforts on arresting drug dealers suspected of peddling K2 to the homeless.
Dusterhoft said police efforts in the area have led to a 44 percent decrease in calls since city leaders came together early in April to say they’d had enough of drug pushers targeting the most vulnerable population of Austin.
During an April 6 news conference at City Hall, Mayor Steve Adler used pointed words to address suspected dealers.
“For those who are orchestrating and profiting off this misery, I don’t know if there’s a special place in hell for them, but there is definitely a place in prison with their name on it,” he said.