The COVID-19 public health crisis hit the homeless community particularly hard, but alongside our partners we continued to make progress towards our commitment to ending homelessness in Austin, successfully moving 1,387 people into housing and out of homelessness this year.
In early 2020, the City established the Homeless Services Division (HSD) within Austin Public Health to coordinate homelessness efforts across City departments and with community partners. Having a central point within the City’s organization to coordinate planning and collaboration efforts has been instrumental in helping to address the needs of those experiencing homelessness, especially as COVID-19 spread throughout our community.
COVID-19 and People Experiencing Homelessness
Health and Hygiene
As the COVID-19 public health crisis spread across Austin, public facilities with bathrooms and showers began to close preventing access to unsheltered neighbors experiencing homelessness. Public health officials and responders across the organization acted swiftly to provide hygiene and sanitation resources critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Portable toilets and handwashing stations were placed in 22 areas across town, aligning with Violet Bag sites and near areas of high activity. The City also deployed mobile showers to reduce travel so neighbors experiencing homelessness could have access to a service that promotes health and safety.
Food Access — Eating Apart Together
Early in the pandemic, many businesses and nonprofit organizations were required to close their doors to slow the spread. With restaurants closing and fewer people handing out donations, more Austinites found themselves experiencing food insecurity and finding reliable sources of food became more important than ever. The City of Austin, along with partners across the community, created the Eating Apart Together (EAT) Initiative to get food to people experiencing homelessness.
The operation procures food for 2,000 shelf-stable bags and thousands of additional prepared meals each week. Event staff at the Palmer Events Center spend two days a week helping to unpack, fill, and organize the bags of food for pickup. These meals are distributed by community partners already providing outreach and services to those experiencing homelessness in Austin.
This program is unique, developed holistically in response to food shortages experienced during the initial stay-at-home order. From April through November, the EAT Initiative served more than 600,000 meals to people experiencing homelessness, in addition to more than 10,000 face coverings, 5,000 pounds of pet food, and 170,000 bottles of water.
Communications to People Experiencing Homelessness
COVID-19 forced us to change the flow of information for people experiencing homelessness. The City developed the Homeless Texting Alert System, a one-way text messaging system to get critical information out quickly and effectively. The program launched in early September with approximately 600 numbers from phones distributed by Integral Care, the Downtown Austin Community Court, and Front Steps. Additional numbers can be added at any time and without risk of sending duplicate messages. This program is another communication tool that can influence action and build trust with people experiencing homelessness.
In March the City launched Basic Needs website which includes an interactive map to help people experiencing homelessness and service providers find where to access basic needs, including places where people can address several needs in one location.
While all of these efforts evolved as a result of the City’s response to COVID-19, they have changed how we coordinate with each other to offer services and advance the various initiatives underway that have successfully moved 1,387 people into housing and out of homelessness in 2020. These long-term initiatives are making significant strides in making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring in Austin.
Within the Strategic Direction 2023 Economic Opportunity and Affordability Outcome, the City Council selected Homelessness as one of our top priorities and point to the following metrics to track performance:
In January 2020, the City contracted with Barbara Poppe & Associates, national experts in homelessness, to assess and provide recommendations on the City’s investments in homeless services. The resulting report, Investing for Results: Priorities and Recommendations for a Systems Approach to End Homelessness, spotlighted many of the successful programs and efforts in our community’s homelessness response, as well as recommendations for coordinating and strengthening our system for preventing, addressing, and ending homelessness in Austin. Key areas of successes and opportunities include reducing the number of people losing their homes, crisis response, housing stabilization, and public space management.
To reduce the number of people entering homelessness, the Housing and Planning Department (formerly Neighborhood Housing and Community Development) launched two phases of the Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants (RENT) program. The RENT program provides rental support for households who have reported an average current income of $14,905 or less. To date, approximately 77% of applicants are extremely low income, earning under 30% of the area Median Family Income (MFI). According to the RENT Dashboard, 3,154 households have received $8.5 million in direct financial assistance. The RENT program has proven to be critical to supporting the City's efforts to prevent families from entering homelessness. Expansion of the program’s eviction prevention services will include increased landlord/tenant mediation and legal representation in court proceedings which are crucial tools to address evictions.
The Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) is an interdisciplinary team from the Austin Police Department, Austin-Travis County EMS, Downtown Austin Community Court, and Integral Care, the local mental health authority for Austin/Travis County. The team’s objective is to proactively seek out community members living on the streets of Austin, learn the challenges they face, and connect them to services with the ultimate goal of housing. Of the 913 total individuals served, 88% were connected to services necessary to begin their journey to stability and recovery. HOST also:
- Facilitated 26 jail diversions in 2020, saving Austin taxpayers $350 per day in jail while providing a more tailored approach to best support the community member in their time of crisis;
- Linked 548 individuals to medical services; and
- Participated in 170 mental health interventions.
In Fiscal Year 2020, the Austin Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) Board approved funding awards for 12 Rental Housing Development Assistance (RHDA) applications, four of which include units dedicated to the Austin/Travis County Continuum of Care for people experiencing homelessness:
- Burnet Place will be a 61-unit permanent supportive housing development operated by Project Transitions, the only direct provider of housing for individuals living with HIV/AIDS in Central Texas. Nine of these units will be dedicated to the Continuum of Care for people experiencing homelessness.
- City Heights will be a 180-unit mixed-income senior development with 10 units dedicated to the Continuum of Care for people experiencing homelessness.
- Vi Collina, will be a 170-unit family development affordable to households below 70% of the area median household income; five of these units will be dedicated to the Continuum of Care for people experiencing homelessness.
- Vecino Group and Caritas of Austin have partnered on a housing project known as Espero at Rutland. This development will provide 171 permanent supportive housing units, 101 units of which will be dedicated to the Continuum of Care for people experiencing homelessness.
In sum, AHFC has funded the creation of more than 200 permanent supportive housing units, 125 of which are dedicated to the Continuum of Care for people experiencing homelessness.
Vi Collina rendering
Public Space Management
The Clean City Strategy engages people experiencing homelessness to keep our community clean, healthy and safe through several programs including the Violet Bag Program, the Violet KeepSafe Storage Program, Public Space Cleaning Service Program, and Grounds Restoration Program. The goal of the strategy is to:
- Facilitate clean and hygienic living
- Prevent dangerous conditions for residents, drivers, and neighbors
- Maintain the environmental quality of our ecosystem
- Provide access points to the resources and services available for supporting homeless individuals
Education and Awareness
The first iteration of the homelessness dashboard launched in August of 2020. The interactive tool, developed in partnership by the Communications and Public Information Office and the Communications and Technology Management Department helps the community better understand the needs of our homeless neighbors and tracks how City initiatives are performing to help meet those needs.