AUSTIN, Texas — The number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin-Travis County increased 11% from 2019 to 2020, according to the latest Point in Time Count.
The data comes from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, which had volunteers count people experiencing homelessness on January 25th.
"Regardless of the numbers, each year that we count, and the number is more than zero, it's a year we have to remain focused on the task of eliminating homelessness in our community. We shouldn't have a number above zero," said ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica.
Volunteers counted 1,574 unsheltered individuals that day in Austin/Travis County, an increase of 45% from their count last year. Using data from the Homeless Management Information System, ECHO staff recorded an additional 932 individuals who were sheltered that night, a decrease of 20% from 2019.
However, Mollica said this is not necessarily an indication there are that many more people experiencing unsheltered homelessness this year.
"Over time, I think we're getting better at the physical act of the Point in Time count, of organizing, getting volunteers, and counting people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in our community. That increase is related to organizing and being more efficient and effective in our count of people experiencing homelessness. I think the stagnant nature of the sheltered number probably has a lot to do with us not creating new emergency shelter, and focusing more on permanent housing, which I think is good for our community. When you look at allocating resources to end homelessness, you want to try and focus on permanent resources and permanent housing options," Mollica said.
The total homeless population increased even as ECHO, the City of Austin and community partners moved more people into housing in 2019 than in previous years.
In each of the last three years, the city and county moved more people into housing, from 1,615 people in 2017, to 2,018 in 2018, and 2,171 in 2019 - which represents a nearly 8 percent increase in the last year.
However, the number of people moved into permanent supportive housing - ECHO's ultimate goal - decreased. Mollica said this might be a good thing.
"Our permanent supportive housing move-ins last year were lower than the move-ins the year before. That is a testament to our programs that are keeping people in a permanent housing program for longer," Mollica said.
Despite this trend, ECHO Vice President of Quality Assurance Sarah Duzinski said more needs to be done to continue expanding these permanent housing options.
"What our findings highlight are our need to scale up permanent housing options for people in Austin-Travis County. We know housing-first programs work. We know they're effective and cost-efficient," Duzinski said. "The housing-first model is an evidence-based model that shows that housing people first, removing barriers, getting them quickly into permanent housing is effective. They remain housed. Studies show that between 75 and 91 percent of people remain housed. It's also cost-efficient. Another study shows because people use fewer emergency services like hospitals and emergency services, they actually - when they're in permanent housing - use about $23,000 less in resources per year than they would if they were just bouncing around shelters."
The results found that the majority of people experiencing homelessness are concentrated around the urban core of Austin, but more unsheltered individuals were counted away from the city center in 2020.
Even accounting for the increases in unsheltered homeless population and overall homeless population, the percentage of Travis County residents experiencing homelessness has remained flat over the last decade.
In each of the last ten years, the county's homeless population rate has remained around 0.2 percent.
However, Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak said he still is concerned by the 45 percent increase of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. He believes the City of Austin's ordinance allowing public sitting, lying, and camping is the reason for this jump.
"That's what we've been predicting all along. We said from the beginning that this homeless camping ordinance was going to be a 'Welcome' sign to homeless individuals from throughout Texas and, in fact, throughout the country to come to Austin so they can do what they want, where they want, and when they want," Mackowiak said.
Save Austin Now has a petition up on their website to get an ordinance on the November ballot, which would reinstate the camping ban in Downtown, the UT campus, and surrounding areas.
"I do think if we end the camping ordinance, it's going to put additional urgency on ramping up housing. That is what the city should be focused on entirely," Mackowiak said. "We want to see the entire homeless population shelter. We want them to be safe. We want them receiving drug and alcohol abuse treatment, medical help. No one believes a tent is a solution for a homeless individual. It's providing public health and public safety consequences for our city and people who live here. To me, the mayor said in the very beginning he doesn't believe the homeless community is in a position where they can choose where to be and which cities are most welcoming. Unfortunately, this Point in Time study proves the mayor was wrong."
Mackowiak also said he believes the state's campground near the airport is another good solution for the homeless population.
Mollica and Duzinski disagree with the idea reinstating the camping ban will help solve homelessness.
"Putting the ban back in place and putting people back in hiding is not going to address homelessness. It's just going to put the same number of people behind the trees, and really hamper our efforts to get people into our HMIS database and coordinated entry system, so they can be connected with housing resources and get off the streets," Duzinski said.
Currently, the City of Austin is continuing discussions to purchase motels to convert into shelters that can later be turned into permanent supportive housing.
The city's goal is to stand up 1,000 permanent supportive housing units, 300 of which from two-to-four motels they purchase.
The city already purchased the Rodeway Inn in South Austin for $8 million - including renovations - and are still working on renovations to get it ready for shelter.
On Thursday, City Council will discuss spending no more than $8,755,000 for a hotel on 183 and I-35 in the Highland area.
"We have a real shortage of permanent supportive housing in our community, and motel conversion is one way to address that shortage," Mollica said.
Right now, the focus is on the very near future. ECHO is still working with shelters across the region to safely handle cases with people living there, while also providing the healthcare needed for this pandemic.
"People experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and experiencing complications from it, so we've really been working on putting protections in place and providing safe lodging," Duzinski said.
Advocates are also worried the economic effects from the COVID-19 pandemic will push even more people into homelessness.
"We do anticipate a wave of insecurity because of this. Given the pandemic, it would not be surprising if we saw a definite increase in the coming months - or even years - in people both at risk of homelessness and falling into homelessness," Duzinski said.
With the combination of their Point in Time Count findings and the current concerns for next year, Mollica said he hopes city leaders take notice, and provide the resources necessary moving forward.
"Access to quality affordable housing is a human right, and we should prioritize it as such when we're looking at our budgets and when we're looking at where to put our money," Mollica said.
You can find the full Point in Time Count results here.