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Goals out of Austin's homelessness 'summit' include 3,000 housing units, millions in spending

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

For the past month, Mayor Steve Adler and other city of Austin officials have met behind closed doors with community leaders to develop a plan to tackle the city's swelling homelessness crisis.

That plan was unveiled to the public Thursday, highlighted by a three-year timeline the group conceded is ambitious. The total cost estimate is likewise ambitious: $250 million over the first three years.

The proposal is perhaps the most comprehensive plan put in place in the three years since Adler and the Austin City Council made ending homelessness their top priority in 2018 and in the two years since the council voted to repeal a citywide public camping ban in 2019.

The groups taking part in Austin's homelessness summit say that, over the next three years, the objective is to provide more than 3,000 new housing units for homeless people.

The plan's release came four days before the start of early voting for the May election, when Austin voters will weigh a proposition that, if successful, could drastically alter the visibility of the city's homelessness crisis by again making it unlawful to camp in public.

More:Austin's mayor pushes Travis County to help fund city's homelessness initiatives

What did Austin officials learn?

Attending the meetings — which were dubbed a summit — were representatives from a number of community groups, including the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (known as ECHO), the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Austin Justice Coalition, Homes Not Handcuffs and Notley’s HomeFront Fund.

Adler and his wife, Diane Land, helped fund the summit through a personal contribution of $3,000 to $4,000 to the social services consulting firm in the Houston area that facilitated the gathering. Adler said. 

Adler — who has taken political heat for the city's homelessness problem — released a statement through his office addressing the summit.

“This approach will meet the challenge of homelessness and create dignity for our unhoused residents without pushing them further into the shadows," it read. "Government cannot do this alone and great appreciation is due the community partners stepping up to help lead this effort. Now that we’re beginning to exit the COVID-19 virus, Austin will start to see real results and successes with homelessness.”

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The groups taking part in the summit say that, over the next three years, the objective is to provide more than 3,000 new housing units — 2,300 rental units and 1,000 permanent housing units — but with the funding capacity to reach 4,000.

It's a lofty aspiration: As of last summer, the city had 1,837 total housing units for people experiencing homelessness.

In addition, funds are earmarked for prevention services with the goal of helping 3,500 people avoid becoming homeless or returning to homelessness. Thus, the goal is to serve a total of 7,500 people.

Where would the money come from?

The potential sources for the money are government funds, private donations, philanthropy and affordable housing development funds, according to the report.

The call for 3,000 housing units is based on the estimated number of people living on the streets and in shelters, a figure that is larger than the results of a point-in-time count conducted by ECHO in January 2020. That count found 2,506 people were experiencing homelessness, including 1,574 who were unsheltered.

The current total is believed to be higher. ECHO is expected in the coming weeks to release the results of an updated count that it conducted in January through alternative means due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lynn Meredith, the summit chair, said releasing the timeline to the public helps ensure the community members working on the problem will be held accountable.

"We're holding ourselves accountable, we're holding the agencies accountable and holding the city accountable by making this very public," said Meredith, an ECHO board member. "If we don't reach the goals, then we have to ask the question why not, why didn't we get there?"

The timeline established in the summit is to have 100 more housing units by June, 200 more by August and 400 more by December. It jumps to 1,200 by October 2022 before reaching 3,000 in April 2024.

Unaddressed was how many of the new housing units the city will specifically be on the hook for, versus the nonprofits and community partners involved in the group.

Also unclear is how the costs would be split among the various entities.

More:Austin's plan to house homeless moves ahead, but questions remain

According to the report, operating expenses would run $240 million over the first three years (estimating $32,000 in annual expense each for the 7,500 people served), and capital expenses would be $14 million annually over the next 20-plus years.

The coalition of entities say they have commitments in place for $72 million to be used for annual operating expenses and $150 million for capital expenses. 

To come up with the remainder, Adler has spoken publicly about using a significant portion of the stimulus funds the city will receive from President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan. The estimated amount devoted specifically to homelessness initiatives is $11 million, but the city also expects to receive $22 million in emergency rental assistance and $195.8 million to be used largely at the City Council's discretion.

The full City Council would have to approve spending the funds as Adler is suggesting.

Travis County expects to receive $247.1 million in general assistance plus $8.1 million for emergency rental assistance. County commissioners have said they'd like to prop up existing social services aimed at preventing homelessness, but that they do not want to pay for housing.

Thursday's report comes a week after the city announced it was moving forward on a plan to connect people living outdoors to a shelter the city plans to open at an undisclosed location. The unsheltered individuals would be removed from four areas in town that have been overtaken by tent encampments. Once the occupants are moved into the shelter, those areas would then be designated off-limits to camping.

Editor's note:  An earlier version of this story misstated the estimated annual cost of the summit's proposed plan.