As she stands outside the Faulk Central Library in downtown Austin, police officer Shelly Borton sees a man get off a bus. She yells and waves for him to come over. He gives a confused glance before realizing who she is and then heads her way.
“How are you doing today?” she asks.
“Bad,” the man replies, shaking his head.
He has been sleeping on the bus after working his night-shift job and is also hungry. He hasn’t been able to get food stamps lately and needs to get over to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on the other side of downtown if he has any hopes of putting some food in his belly this morning.
“And I need clothes. I ain’t got no (more) clothes,” says Shawn Hill, a 34-year-old from North Carolina who has been homeless in Texas for eight months, four of those in Austin.
“Let me see what I got,” Borton says before heading over to her SUV. She returns with a small plastic container that has socks, granola bars and other food. Then, she offers Hill a ride in her car so he can get some food at the ARCH.
“This made my day,” Hill says, clutching the container.
The interaction is a small one, but the Austin Police Department hopes this interaction and the dozens of others like it that Borton has every day as part of the city’s Homeless Outreach Street Team will change the paradigm in police interactions with homeless people and help decrease Austin’s ballooning homeless population.
The city’s annual homeless count saw an increase of 20 percent this year, from 1,877 in 2015 to 2,197 during a preliminary point-in-time count in March. Meanwhile, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition this year served more than 7,000 homeless people from January through May.
The police department’s pilot program, which is patterned after an initiative in Houston, began in June and will run through August. It is a partnership between the Police Department, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, Austin Travis County Integral Care and the Downtown Austin Alliance. By pooling resources and skill sets, the interdisciplinary team — which includes two police officers, two social workers and a paramedic — hopes to more efficiently tackle the problem of homelessness in the city. The pilot program is focusing on downtown and West Campus, with hopes of expanding citywide if funding is approved by the City Council.
Change in course
Before the pilot program, the department operated on a zero-tolerance basis for offenses committed by homeless people. They would arrest them for crimes — usually misdemeanors, such as public intoxication or trespassing — or slap them with a citation they could not afford. When a homeless person failed to pay, a warrant was issued for his or her arrest.
“You get in this cycle where they’ve got all these warrants on them and no money to pay them,” said Cmdr. Pat Cochran, who oversees the Police Department’s downtown division. “You’re temporarily cleaning up an area for a few hours — but long-term, you’re not doing any good.”
Instead, the outreach program takes a more proactive approach. Rather than waiting to respond to emergency calls, the team walks the beat every day, reaching out to the homeless people they find and trying to connect them with resources they need.
If a person needs help getting work or a photo ID to claim veteran or disability benefits, the team can help with that. If they need non-emergency medical care, the team can treat them or direct them to nearby medical resources.
By having the Homeless Outreach Street Team around to provide those services, authorities say they can cut down on emergency room visits and police calls that clog up emergency providers and end up costing taxpayers more money.
Since June, the program has diverted nine patients from emergency rooms to crisis centers where they can receive help, according to data from Austin Travis County Integral Care.
The program also aims to promote trust between police and the vulnerable population it is working with. To that effect, the police officers are usually out of uniform.
In San Antonio, where police started a similar program in January, homeless people have gotten so used to interacting with the team that some ask for certain officers by name, said officer Monty McCann.
“The law enforcement mentality is to arrest people and that’s what the perspective of the homeless is: that we’ll just come harass and arrest them,” he said. “We’ve been trying to move away from that mentality and build rapport with them.”
Austin hopes to replicate that. During a recent shift, homeless people would come up to ask Borton how to navigate the court system for an upcoming case or to update her on their progress finding work or housing.
But the ultimate fix, the team knows, is providing more housing for the city’s homeless. As part of its mission, the team puts as many people as it can through a coordinated assessment, which local nonprofits and social services providers use to collect data on homelessness and get people into housing based on need.
In Houston, the homeless outreach team has helped put 818 people in temporary or permanent housing since 2011. In 2015 alone, the team put 301people into housing, leading to more than $4 million in estimated savings.
For the moment, Austin’s pilot program is not costing taxpayers much. All of the members of the team were reassigned by their agencies and the Downtown Austin Alliance funded an additional case worker. The only other cost, Cochran said, has been a wheelchair accessible van the team has leased from Capital Metro at $400 per month.
But it is unclear whether the program will continue past the City Council’s budget process in August, which already has pay raises for city staff, increased overtime payments for the Austin Fire Department and other pending commitments that leave little room for new initiatives.
Cochran estimates that the total cost for the program to operate citywide in its first year would be $1.3 million, including the salaries and benefits for six teams of one officer and one case worker and the purchase of vehicles and other expenditures for the teams. After that, the cost would drop to around $204,000 per team every year.
Cochran said the details are still being worked out and that police officers on the team could simply be reassigned from their current assignment, which would mean the program would only be adding cost for the team’s equipment.
Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 in downtown Austin district has the highest homeless population in the city, said she will fight to secure funding for the program.
“It is one of my highest priorities for this budget to make sure we have continued and expanded funding for this program,” she said. “My expectation is that it will be supported.
I hope it will become a community priority.”