Viewpoints: City should look to proven models to address homelessness

When it comes to Austin’s homeless population, advocates agree something must be done to get more people off the streets. They also all agree that it takes a lot of money to get the job done.

That’s pretty much where the agreements end as various groups jockey over the best ways to help the homeless.

Though some argue that the solution requires more permanent and transitional housing, others say more shelter space is needed. Still, others say the answer lies in improved access to mental health services and job training.

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Research shows that the most effective models incorporate all these approaches. The challenge is coming up with appropriate funding.

As city leaders take on the challenge of addressing homelessness, we urge them to look at nearby programs, such as Community First Village and Haven for Hope, for inspiration.

Advocates are right: The issue needs to be addressed. Austin’s lack of affordable housing combined with stagnant wages for low-income workers and inadequate funding of mental health services have pushed more people on the streets.

In 2016, nonprofits identified 7,101 homeless people, up from 6,104 in 2014. On any given day, more than 2,000 people including families with children are homeless in Austin, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

Nowhere is the homeless population more visible than in downtown, where the city’s largest shelter, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, is on the 500 block of East Seventh Street. A two-block area around the center also attracts drug users, drug peddlers and others who are not there to use the center’s services, raising growing concerns among those in the local business and tourism industry.

Mayor Steve Adler’s Downtown Puzzle plan would leverage tourism dollars to address several issues — including homelessness — by increasing the city’s hotel occupancy tax and creating a Tourism Public Improvement District. The measures call for a 3 percent total tax increase, which would be added to hotel guests’ bills. Those tourist-generated funds would pay for an expansion of the convention center and for music, cultural, historic and homeless initiatives near the convention center.

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Several council members have since presented resolutions calling for city staff to identify other funding options available to address homelessness.

Currently, Austin nonprofits share a database to track, assess and prioritize the most vulnerable and those who have been living on the streets the longest. The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless provides some social services and helps the homeless find permanent housing. The ARCH serves as a temporary shelter with room for 250 people to sleep nightly.

More needs to be done. Of the more than 7,100 homeless people identified last year by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, only 1,900 were placed in permanent housing.

The longer a person lives on the street, the more their safety is compromised and the more difficult it is to break the cycle of homelessness and of living on and off the streets, experts say.

Austin’s Community First Village and San Antonio’s Haven for Hope have shown success getting people off the street and helping to keep them off.

A privately funded residential program featuring RVs, tiny homes and canvas-sided cottages on 27 acres nine miles from downtown Austin and outside the city limits, Community First Village uses public and private funds to provide the homeless with permanent housing and some social services.

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Long-term housing and supportive services – including health services, on-site job opportunities and education – provide stability and intervention to address root causes of homelessness, like unemployment, addiction, criminal history and mental or physical disabilities.

Last year, Community First Village became the permanent address for 100 formerly homeless individuals.

In San Antonio, Haven for Hope is a one-stop all-inclusive homeless shelter built and sustained by the city’s public and private sectors. On its 22-acre campus located less than half a mile from the River Walk, the homeless can connect to more than 300 nonprofit employees, who have offices on-site, offering social and health services.

Of the almost 800 people housed in 2016 at Haven for Hope, 89 percent remained housed one year after moving from Haven for Hope into permanent housing, according to the shelter.

It’s worth noting that Community First Village and Haven for Hope are both located on campuses that don’t affect the way of life of nearby established residential neighborhoods.

The missing ingredient, however, is money.

Adler’s plan points to a recurring source of funding over 10 years to be used to help the homeless and for other projects. Other sources of funding to help the homeless should also be explored.

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Finding solutions to homelessness is a worthy investment in any community.

Between shelters, emergency rooms and jails, a homeless person can cost taxpayers about $40,000 a year, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Existing approaches to addressing homelessness in Austin and San Antonio exemplify the possibilities that collaborations with the business community, faith-based organizations and the nonprofit sector can deliver. Austin just needs more.

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