The latest forum on Austin’s homelessness crisis took place on Wednesday to a sizable crowd of concerned citizens. Roughly 1,000 people filed into a ballroom in the convention center to listen to three city councilmembers and the mayor discuss their 90-day strategy to deal with the developing homeless problem.
Mayor Steve Adler joined councilmembers Greg Casar, Kathie Tovo, and Ann Kitchen on stage. The topic of conversation was the July 1 ordinance change which permitted camping and laying in public spaces — except for at City Hall and in parks.
The main theme of the discussion by the panelists was the need for more housing.
Mayor Adler began by discussing his visits to other cities experiencing similar problems: specifically Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The main takeaway, Adler stated, was the other cities wish they had faced this issue head-on sooner than they did.
Adler also added that “The number of homeless people eight years ago is less than it is today.”
Adler was also told by other cities to “Put them [homeless individuals] in housing and give them the services they need.” He then highlighted that Austin “got half the homeless children off the streets last year.”
“Most people are homeless because of a string of unfortunate events,” Adler added.
He then went on to say that the most common response to telling homeless people to move out of an area is, “Where do you want me to go?” Adler continued, adding, “If you ask someone to move and your best answer is two blocks from here, then the situation will get worse,” pointing back to his original point of needing more housing.
At that point, a handful of protesters interrupted, yelling out campaign contribution amounts from developers to the councilmembers on stage. The outburst lasted only a few minutes before they were escorted out.
Councilwoman Tovo, whose district contains Congress Avenue which many consider the epicenter of the problem, told the crowd the city “has initiated a redesign of the ARCH” homeless shelter on 7th Street.
Tovo stated an additional $55 million would be needed to solve the problem.
About the 90-day plan, Casar stated, “We come together to do the right thing, in ways that we have not been able to for so long.” He also added, “It is wrong that homeless people have a lifespan 30 years less than the average,” suggesting that should remain a large focus of the community while solving this issue.
“We don’t want camping in public places, it’s not good for anyone,” Kitchen added.
The main strategy emphasized by the panel was creating more housing, both in the downtown area and in the neighborhoods.
During the question and answer portion, topics from many different perspectives were lobbed at the panelists — from mental health and drug abuse issues, the effect on businesses, and treating homeless individuals humanely.
At one point, the question was raised about whether creating the proposed housing and increasing services provided would create a “magnet,” attracting homeless people from other communities to Austin.
Mayor Adler pushed back on this saying “it is an urban myth” that homeless individuals from other communities or states are coming here because of the services provided. He added that most are natives of, or longtime residents, in Austin or Travis County.
One man, who identified himself as having at one time been homeless, gave an impassioned appeal with an under-discussed perspective. He said he became homeless due to the “string of unfortunate events” Adler mentioned earlier — a job loss led to an eviction, and so on.
The question he posed to the panel was essentially, “Why not, in the next 90 days, focus on homeless individuals like he used to be in the short term — to get them off the streets and prevent their slide into chronic homelessness — and then be able to dedicate more resources to the bulk of the homeless population with mental health and drug abuse issues?”
Adler responded by saying the dynamic is difficult to solve, restating the question, “Do you help the person [first] that is most in need or closest to dying, or do you help somebody [first] who requires the least amount of help that will get them back together?”
Adler answered his question by stating, “That’s an important conversation to have in this community, but it does not have an easy answer.”
The audience’s concerns, from whatever direction they came, did not seem to be alleviated by the panel’s proposals.
A forum was held in late-July in which local law enforcement and community organizations discussed how the ordinance affects their day-to-day jobs.
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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 watching and quoting Monty Python productions.