Audit: Neighborhood centers out of reach for most low-income residents

Austin’s neighborhood centers, which provide basic social services and preventative health screenings, remain largely inaccessible to many of the low- and moderate-income families they aim to serve, a recent city audit found.

The audit, released this month, found that about 95 percent of the city’s lower income households are outside of walking distance to the city’s neighborhood centers.

Austin has six neighborhood centers: four in East Austin, one in Southeast Austin and one in South Austin. The facilities provide food assistance and free transportation; screenings for high blood pressure and cholesterol; and utility bill and rent support.

Part of the problem is that three of those locations — Blackland, Rosewood-Zaragosa and the East Austin neighborhood centers — are clustered in East Austin, the audit said. They are within one mile of one other with overlapping coverage of areas that were once almost entirely low-income neighborhoods, but that now have many redeveloping neighborhoods.

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“This is kind of a signal about gentrification and displacement, frankly,” City Council Member Leslie Pool said during a recent meeting of the city Audit and Finance Committee. “It’s pretty clear that is why some of these centers are no longer being patronized by the communities that they were put there to care for and support.”

The audit recommended the city find ways to increase accessibility to the neighborhood centers, but it did not provide any suggestions as to how that might be achieved, beyond recommending the city continue partnerships with similar facilities operated by Travis County.

It also said that Austin’s Public Health Department should find ways to expand its scope of operations in areas of the city with higher concentrations of low- and moderate-income households.

Austin Public Health interim Director Stephanie Hayden said Austin Public Health has gone farther out into the outskirts of eastern Austin, where poverty is more prevalent and services are lacking. There, it routinely uses three outreach centers in partnering with the Capital Area Food Bank to help families.

“That has proved to be a very successful outreach effort,” Hayden said.

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But because of limited space, Austin Public Health has been unable to provide the full range of services available at its permanent neighborhood centers closer to Central Austin, the audit said.

The audit also recommended that Austin Public Health improve outreach to communities with its food and health screening programs, services that appear to be the least vulnerable to an expected decrease in its federal Community Services Block Grant that funded roughly one-third of neighborhood centers’ total budget.

City management agreed with all of the audit’s findings and stated it would implement an outreach plan by June 30.

Austin Public Health’s long-term construction plan calls for the construction of three more neighborhood centers, though it’s unclear when they might materialize. The agency has also looked at leasing space in North Austin, though it has held off because of the uncertainty in its grant funding.

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