Homelessness, the problem that affects all of us

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
2011 2362
2012 2243
2013 2090
2014 1987
2015 1877

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.

6 thoughts on “Homelessness, the problem that affects all of us

  1. If the city provides no or low-cost housing in an area which is very attractive to panhandle during the day (think weather), could we not expect more rather than less people coming here / staying here to live this particular lifestyle?

    I don’t think Utah has to worry about becoming too attractive. One of their winter days outdoors is worse than an entire summer here.

    Also, having dealt with another fine example of the city’s charming vagabonds while on a bike ride with my 11-year-old son just Friday, I don’t think your expectation that these folks will willingly get off the streets is realistic.

    1. You could certainly be right that we’ve reached an intractable problem–definitely what I thought until recently. But I think the progress that has been made in Utah and other places–and even the progress here–points the way that there’s still plenty more folks who would benefit from and be willing to use permanent supportive housing with wraparound social services. Even if it’s just half of current homeless folks in Austin, that could significantly reduce the workload on our cops, the broken beer bottles in our parks, etc.

  2. I agree with MIke, sorry to say. I live out at 183/Burnet which is a hornets nest for homelessness. AND THEY WANT TO LIVE ON THE STREETS THIS WAY. It’s not that I don’t have empathy for them. God knows, I have given money and spent time talking with them to find out their stories. To be honest, we in Austin have made it very easy to live on the streets. They know where they can get food. A food truck specifically for the homeless drops off food consistently every day for them. In the winter they know the ARCH will probably not turn them away, even if they are overcrowded. They make damn good money on those street corners. For some, they gather enough money to go stay at the Budget Hotel or other by-the-night extended stay type places.

    On the other hand, they cost our city dearly because collectively our city has chosen to roll out the red carpet for them. They trash out our underpasses. They cause accidents where they get hurt (and who pays for THAT?) WE have passed two separate bond issues totalling almost $100 million dollars. For that amount of money we could buy the current 1800 a condo and let them live there free.

    I think we need to take back our highways and streets from these people and force them to seek help. They will not seek help on their own.

  3. When I first read visionzero’s “no death is acceptable” target, it struck a cord. I was reminded of a process I used that is standard for many high tech chip, computer, etc manufacturers.

    In manufacturing you don’t want any defects. So if any occur, you determine the cause then analyse the data about causes and start fixing them. You start with the low hanging fruit and the causes with the highest counts. As those are fixed you re-analyse data on causes, find the next cause with the highest count and fix that. The process is repeated over and over in a continuous loop. The number of defects continuously goes down.

    Visionzero’s data-driven processes will help preserve human life. We must get a handle on our rising traffic death counts. We have limited uncommitted financial resources in City Government. So using them wisely will help ensure the best results.

  4. There will always be a small hard core of homeless people who *prefer* to live outdoors in the trees. But it’s a very, very small number.

    For the vast majority of homeless people, offer them an efficiency apartment and they’ll take it, no questions asked.

    Some are severely mentally ill and will proceed to lose track of where they are, accidentally start fires, etc. They need to go back into institutions — they were all kicked out during the Reagan era in the early 1980s.

    Little known fact: homelessness went WAY UP during the 1980s. It was very rare during the 1970s, but Reagan’s policies (throwing everyone in the mental institutions out on the street, while simultaneously slashing funding for public housing) caused it to go way up.

    Basically, all we need to do to get rid of 90% of homelessness is to reverse the changes made in the 1980s — provide free minimalistic public housing on demand, and put the severely hallucinating back in the mental institutions.

    1. You are right Nathanael. I moved here in 1974 and worked downtown from 1980 to 1986. That is when we started seeing homeless people on the street. Very obviously mentally ill. There weren’t very many of them. I used to walk from 6th and Congress (my night job) at 1:30am over to San Jacinto and 8th St where I parked my car for my day job. I never every had a problem all those years. I wouldn’t think of doing that now. It was deserted downtown. The homeless made themselves known during the day. As 6th St entertainment district started to grow, that’s when problems started happening. The ARCH should be moved from downtown to some area where buses run now . .. or could be set up to run. . .so that they can come and go. But by placing them downtown, we have created a magnet for all kinds of activity. It’s not that they need to be ‘out of sight/out of mind’. they need to be in a safer place to get off the streets and to access services without being preyed upon by drug dealers and other troubles. Our city just has not tried hard enough to find a place to set up a new shelter, in spite of all the ‘affordable housing’ bond money we have passed.

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