Austin’s homelessness situation is getting worse.

On the same day that an exposé showed the dangerous conditions of the Northbridge homeless shelter, Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer resigned. Within a week of this happening, a campfire started in an illegal homeless encampment and got out of control in a dry, drought-affected area on the northside of Austin. Now the city’s lax homeless shelter policy has led to a request for new management of the Northbridge shelter.

Even after many of the claims made by the exposé have been called into question through an internal audit, the city is still struggling with homelessness policy and has asked for proposals to take over management of the shelter.  Applicants must submit their intent to apply by the Oct 31 and have their final proposals submitted by the Nov. 16. The Request for Proposals is asking for “social service providers with demonstrated experience in providing low-barrier, Emergency Shelter to individuals and households.”

This comes a year after the Southbridge shelter, Northbridge’s sister shelter, abruptly ended all ties with the non-profit Front Steps, and the Austin Area Urban League stepped in. The more than $4 million contract with the Austin Area Urban League is set to expire at the end of the year. The city has been spending millions of dollars acquiring these shelters and awarding contracts to non-profits. Yet the homeless population has only been increasing, and there does not seem to be any change in the fundamental policies surrounding homelessness.

Austin’s problems highlight why understanding the shelters and how they are managed is important so that we are not throwing good money after bad. There have been calls for audits to make sure that cities are spending money properly, as prescribed by the city council. However, it is not enough to make sure that the money set aside for homelessness services is spent as the city council directs, if the city itself is improperly managing its homelessness policy.

While ensuring that the money allotted for homelessness services is being spent in the way directed by the government elected by the people is important, that is only a small part of how the entire system itself needs to be analyzed. The only real solution to chronic homelessness is getting people on track to self-sufficiency, and the success of homelessness services should be based on how well shelter operators are able to move people towards that destination. The provisions put forth in SB 1803 in the 88th legislative session layout the metrics that can measure this kind of success. These metrics include the percentage of those who receive services:

  • That can maintain housing for at least twelve months, and who is primarily paying for that housing.
  • Those children are enrolled in school.
  • Who are eligible for work and those who participate in at least 20 hours of paid work.
  • Who are receiving vocational training.
  • Who are earning a living wage.
  • Who are ineligible to work at least 20 hours per week and the reasons why.
  • Who have mental health needs, suffer from addiction.
  • Those who have a criminal history that continued 12 months after services or ceased in the 12 month period after services.

Based on these metrics, recommendations would be made to eliminate poorly performing services, end contracts with poor providers, consolidate redundant services, and reallocate resources to those that are performing well.

If these measures had been applied earlier proper management could have already been in place and incidents like those that occurred at the Northbridge shelter could have been avoided.