Local NewsTaxes & Spending$4.3 Million Plan is the Latest Iteration of Austin’s Attempt to Mitigate Homeless Problem

Approaching two years since its first recission of the public grounds camping and laying prohibition, the City of Austin continues its efforts to reduce the unsheltered homeless population.
April 8, 2021
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Texas’ capital city released its latest iteration of a plan to cut into the long-festering homeless problem. The plan’s outline — dubbed the Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative — consists of a population count, outreach efforts, identification of four problem camping areas, and relocation of the homeless residents of those spots into permanent housing.

The plan itself stems from a February 4 directive from the city council.

Those sites, according to recently minted Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey, will not be made public “to protect the privacy of those living there.” After identification, over the course of the summer the city will work with the residents in the respective encampments to move them into permanent housing. Once cleared, the city envisions continuing to prevent camping in those areas.

In total, the project is estimated to cost $4.3 million not including the currently inestimable costs of site restoration.

The most recent count showed 2,506 homeless individuals living in Austin — 63 percent of which are unsheltered. From 2019 to 2020, the city’s unsheltered count jumped by about 500 while its sheltered count dropped by a few hundred.

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The big change during that year was the city’s recission of its camping ban policy which took effect on July 1, 2019.

According to the data, the city has about 2,100 permanent housing beds and roughly 1,000 short-term shelter beds.

Austin expects another 400 beds in additional permanent housing to stem from federal aid and 140 units to come from the city’s two hotel purchases for a total of $16.2 million.

City officials have reiterated time and again their position that providing more housing is the only way to substantially mitigate the homeless problem.

The HEAL initiative toes that same focus and emphasizes the need for voluntary compliance and avoiding punitive measures to gain compliance.

Asked about the portion of the population, however big or small it is, that prefers unsheltered living, Gray told The Texan, “The perception that there are people who do not want to come off the streets has not really been tested. We have an extraordinarily long waitlist for housing and there is no shortage of people who are ready to move into housing.”

Insofar as there are homeless individuals who do not want to move into housing, Gray added that they reject it due to “them being unwilling to move into a congregate shelter which can be a difficult environment or that they have not been offered housing that truly meets their needs.”

“Let’s get everyone housed who wants to be housed and then see what the evidence is really like and go from there. But we are far from that place right now.”

Gray estimated that the HEAL initiative will require 50 beds of shelter capacity for the transitional process.

She further added, “We will not force anyone into housing, and the compliance with the plan is just aimed at those four sites.”

Gray has been in the position for three months. She took the job after her predecessor, Lori Pampilo Harris, left after one month on the job. “There is still a body of work in front of us, but I am feeling very encouraged.”

Asked if there is pressure to show the city is taking action before the May ballot proposition, Gray said, “There is no shortage of pressure.”

Austin voters will have the opportunity to reinstate the city’s pre-July 2019 prohibition of camping on public grounds. All the while, the state legislature is prioritizing its own statewide ban on public camping.

The state and the city have been at odds over this issue for years, and especially so since the 2019 ordinance change. 

Asked if the governor’s office or other state officials had been included in the HEAL development, Gray told The Texan they had communicated extensively with Austin’s legislative delegation but did not say one way or the other if Governor Abbott or his staff had been involved.

An official with the governor’s confirmed to The Texan it was not invited to collaborate on the strategy.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.

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