A very small percentage of Austinites are homeless. During the January 2015 count of homeless individuals in Austin, a total of 1,877 homeless residents of Austin were found, or roughly 0.2% — 1 in every 450 Austinites. Yet, homelessness is a problem with an extremely wide reach. The knock-on problems that come from our inability to end homelessness emanate out in so many ways it can be hard to even be aware of all them. These are just a small sample:
- Our creeks double as people’s homes. They aren’t good homes; they’re dangerous places to be in a flash flood. Some people don’t wish to go near the creeks out of either fear, disgust, or courtesy directed at those who live there. Obviously, creeks don’t have regular trash collection and a lot of trash ends up in the creeks, especially during flood events.
- Living outdoors without preventative medical care is very dangerous, both for short-term medical problems like heat stroke and untreated long-term medical problems. EMTs, ambulances, emergency room resources are all called in to keep homeless individuals alive, though not to keep them healthy. These services, obviously, are not paid for by the homeless themselves, but the costs are absorbed by the city or private entities in one way or another.
- Pedestrian benches on Brazos St and 6th St were removed after they became a popular place for homeless individuals to congregate, resulting in complaints from nearby business owners that potential customers were being scared away. Downtown office buildings have locked bathrooms to prevent homeless individuals from using them. Many seating areas have some anti-sleeping measures built in.
- Homelessness is an extreme risk indicator for being hit by a car. One can imagine many possible reasons for this, from living in pedestrian-inhospitable places like freeway underpasses to mental illness and untreated substance abuse issues.
It is this last bullet point that came up at a City Council hearing on Vision Zero, a goal of zero traffic deaths or serious injuries :
Council Member Garza has been one of the leading advocates for social services in her tenure at City Council to date, so the clear reading of her statement here is not that ending homelessness or fully funding mental health services aren’t worthy goals, but rather that they are not realistically achievable.
A few years ago, I would have agreed. But reading about the successes in Utah, I am confident that a Vision Zero-style goal for ending all homelessness in Austin is fully within our grasp. Indeed, using similar “Housing First” techniques, Austin has already seen big drops in homelessness, based on our annual count:
|Year||Total homeless individuals counted|
The main beneficiaries of the Utah policies are the formerly homeless, who now have an opportunity to live with safety, physical comfort, and dignity.
But as the article says, switching to a different strategy for ending homelessness can actually save money for the government as well: the city ends up managing various parts of homeless people’s lives one way or the other: either by providing no-cost or very-low-cost housing, or through uncoordinated, unplanned spending by police, EMS, emergency rooms, parks department workers, etc. This isn’t even counting the private dollars spent turning homes and offices into fortresses to prevent people from using basic services like benches to sit or sleep on or bathrooms to wash in.
Homelessness is one of those problems many of us grew up thinking was simply intractable. I grew up learning that we help the homeless because we have empathy, but we cannot help all of them, because there is a limit to our resources. Now that we have a real possibility of ending it–and are making significant progress toward that goal, both in Austin and elsewhere–I hope that we push as hard as we can. Spending on this as a priority can save us money in the medium-run, improve people’s lives, and, as I list above, help countless other problems we don’t necessarily even think of as related.