Editorial: ATX Helps deserves support for bold plan - Opinion - Austin American-Statesman

By American-Statesman Editorial Board

Friday

Nov 8, 2019 at 4:24 PM Nov 8, 2019 at 4:50 PM

For the past five months, our city has been preoccupied with the question of whether to tolerate homeless encampments on sidewalks and highway underpasses. Officials have given too little attention to the more urgent question of how to get vulnerable people off the streets, and into proper shelter, as quickly as possible.

We hope that will change with a bold proposal to create a 300-bed, temporary homeless shelter in a massive, industrial-grade tent. The newly formed ATX Helps, a nonprofit coalition of business groups and charities, is trying to raise $14 million to set up the temporary shelter early next spring and staff it for two years, modeling its effort on a homeless shelter program in San Diego. ATX Helps is looking for a location in or near downtown.

The scale of the proposal is impressive: It would provide shelter for three times as many people as the city’s brick-and-mortar shelter planned at Ben White Boulevard and Bannister Lane, which is expected to open sometime next year. Both would have on-site services to help homeless people replace important documents, such as ID cards; connect with mental health or substance abuse assistance; and work with specialists to obtain long-term housing.

Still, it’s just one piece of the puzzle: A 300-bed ATX Helps shelter would house only about a quarter of the Austinites currently sleeping outside every night. And "temporary" could mean years. In San Diego, getting people off the streets hasn’t led to the massive tents getting packed up, but to another tent opening to help even more people.

As always, the sticking point is the need for more affordable housing. San Diego initially aimed to provide permanent housing for two-thirds of the people coming to its tent shelters. However, in the first 16 months of operation, only 19% of the clients left the tent shelters for permanent or long-term housing; many others went to another shelter, a hotel, a jail cell or back to the streets.

Austin similarly has a shortage of affordable housing units, housing subsidies and other support services for those who are homeless. Roughly 3,000 homeless individuals and families are on a waiting list for housing in Austin. The city is pouring more money into adding units, but it’s slow-going and people wait for months at homeless shelters instead of moving through them. The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the city-owned shelter downtown, is over capacity and has 200 people on a waiting list.

ATX Helps would get more people into shelter and off the streets. But the effort will need the support of City Hall, state agencies and other organizations — particularly in providing more permanent housing units to ensure shelter stays are short.

Instead, we saw a frustrating lack of coordination last week on homeless response efforts. Austin officials cleared out sidewalk encampments near the ARCH, and state workers threw away homeless residents’ tents and other belongings at highway underpasses, all without a viable plan for where those people should go. We recognize the need to ensure these areas are clean and passable. But such cleanups need to be done in a way that does not create more upheaval and instability for people living on the margins.

Then Gov. Greg Abbott made a surprise announcement Thursday about a state-sanctioned homeless camp site in Montopolis without any coordination with the city, any advance planning with Capital Metro (which is now scrambling to figure out transit access to the site), any outreach to Austin Public Health or any involvement with the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, the local lead agency for homeless response. It’s clear to us the asphalt-covered lot was picked because it was available, not because the location or amenities meet the needs of those expected to camp there.

Why does that matter? Government and nonprofit resources are limited and precious. We should make sure they’re put to the best use, toward efforts most likely to improve the situation.

Unfortunately the politics around Austin’s homeless response have become so polarized that the state won’t work with the city; many residents have lost faith in the city; and community leaders felt the need to create ATX Helps, an admirable effort to move the ball forward.

The urgency and complexity of the homeless challenge should compel all these parties to set politics aside and work together. We can all agree that Austin should not be a place where people live in desperation on the streets. It will take all of us working together to make a difference.

https://www.statesman.com/opinion/20191108/editorial-atx-helps-deserves-support-for-bold-plan