It now looks unlikely that Austinites will get to make their voices heard this November in the controversy over the city’s homelessness policies. The Austin city clerk recently rejected a petition that would have allowed voters to reinstate the camping ban the City Council dismantled last year. Save Austin Now, a nonprofit that supported bringing back the camping ban, collected more than 24,000 signatures to place the item on the ballot, but the clerk cited discrepancies that left the effort short of the 20,000 signatures required. Save Austin Now plans to appeal.
The petition marks the latest chapter in the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis. Results from the January 2020 “Point in Time” count showed that Austin’s homeless population increased by 11 percent from 2019. Street-level homelessness grew by 45 percent. And those counts often overlook families who may be “couch surfing” or living in motel rooms.
The Save Austin Now petition took aim at the most visible symptom of the city’s struggles with homelessness, but more decisive action is needed. The top priority should be abandoning the failed one-size-fits-all approach known as “Housing First.”
Housing First was launched under the administration of George W. Bush as a targeted way to address the most severe cases of chronic homelessness by moving these individuals into housing immediately. The Obama Administration expanded the model to all people experiencing homelessness. It required all organizations receiving federal funding for the homeless to provide the same treatment model to all clients: access to subsidized housing without any accountability requirements.
Under this approach, a single man struggling with drug addiction or mental illness is treated the same as a mother with children, without any expectation that either engage in life improvement services such as mental health treatment, addiction recovery or job training. In fact, organizations receiving taxpayer dollars to serve the homeless are expressly prohibited from requiring services as a condition of housing.
Federal officials pitched Housing First as part of a plan to end homelessness in a decade. While the early part of the decade saw a decline in the number of unsheltered homeless, this improvement reversed around 2015 and unsheltered homelessness rose by almost 22% between 2015 and 2019. In California, which adopted Housing First as statewide policy in 2016, homelessness increased by 16.4% between 2018 and 2019.
Austin has experienced remarkably similar outcomes under Housing First. Between 2017 and 2019, homelessness in Austin increased by 10.7%, with the unsheltered population increasing by 30%. The newly released 2020 data shows a 23% increase in homelessness over 2017.
It is not too late to turn things around. Doing so will require shifting away from Housing First to a “People First” model that recognizes the individuality and potential of each Austinite experiencing homelessness. State and local officials should work with the federal government to loosen regulations and give communities and charitable organizations maximum flexibility to develop innovative ways of serving our neighbors in need.