Three campfires in one evening sounds like an awful lot of fun, unless you are a firefighter like Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Thayer Smith. In the wee hours of April 2, his unit battled fires at three homeless encampments.
What is happening in Austin is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. It threatens the health and safety of the community, and in particular of those struggling with homelessness.
According to pre-COVID-19 data released in late March by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the number of Austin’s unsheltered population—those who live in makeshift tents around the city—has risen a staggering 93% since 2016.
The Austin metro area represents 7% of the overall population of Texas, but about 25% of Texas’ unsheltered population today resides on its streets today.
Homeless individuals are at much greater risk of exposure to violence, disease, malnutrition, and as we’ve seen in the last several days, fires. Behavioral health issues such as schizophrenia, substance use disorders and depression often develop, and are made worse, while experiencing homelessness. If they have chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma, homelessness accelerates the effects of those diseases given the difficulty in accessing medications and in storing them properly.
Homelessness significantly harms the health and safety of the surrounding community, as well. Not only is it extremely difficult to witness the homeless perishing on our streets, homelessness imposes risks to public health as we’ve seen most recently with COVID-19. It reduces the availability of health care and public safety resources available to a community. It degrades the use of public parks, lands, waterways, and sidewalks that have become riddled with needles, human feces, and debris. It discourages access to businesses whose customers would rather find another place to do business than to step over a homeless person passed out in the business’ doorway.
It is important to understand the origin of Austin’s homelessness surge. In 2013, HUD rolled out a one-size-fits-all homelessness policy, called Housing First, with spotty evidence of efficacy. Their “solution” to homelessness? Provide life-long, “no strings attached” housing—no requirement of sobriety, no work requirement, no requirement to access services to change the behaviors that led to homelessness. Austin’s elected officials took the bait—hook, line, and sinker.
HUD promised the Housing First approach would end homelessness in a decade. Instead, it resulted in an over 16% increase across the nation, including a 21% increase in the “unsheltered” population—ironically, the population for which this approach was originally designed.
Because Austin elected officials chose to follow HUD down an uncharted rabbit hole, Austin has experienced the same disastrous results, indeed the same disastrous results California has seen since it adopted Housing First in 2016—a stunning 37% increase in homelessness.
About three-quarters of the homeless population suffer from underlying issues such as mental illness, addiction, and physical disabilities which led to their homelessness. Policy needs to acknowledge this while also honoring the human dignity of those suffering from homelessness. Policies must facilitate their healing and growth, rather than straight-jacketing them into these circumstances as Housing First does.
Imagine a hospital. Imagine removing the doctors and nurses, then remove the medicine. All that’s left is beds. This is Housing First.
The result of the single-minded focus on four walls and a roof is that taxpayers underwrite subsidized-for-life housing for Austin’s homeless, the vast majority of whom, if healed and if provided the proper tools and incentives, could work and provide for themselves.
Austin will never be able to create “enough” housing units under this system. And because there will never be enough of these units, and because policy does not treat the underlying reasons for an individual’s homelessness, more and more people will be driven to Austin’s streets.
House Bill 1925 and Senate Bill 987, currently under consideration by the Texas Legislature, prohibit local communities from allowing public camping. This is an important first step towards addressing Austin’s homelessness crisis.
The allowance of camping does nothing to help Austin’s homeless heal and does nothing to help our community prosper. Rather, it allows Austin’s elected officials to continue to avoid making the tough policy changes necessary to turn this crisis around while appearing to be virtuous.