Homelessness in Austin: At an Ideological Crossroads
In June at Austin City Hall, a series of votes by the City Council regarding homelessness erupted into significant public outcry, from a mom with elementary school children to the Governor of Texas. The frustration with City Hall seemed to have less to do with the items in front of the Council that day and more to do with the City’s continued inability to effectively respond to the homeless crisis, a crisis that is not unique to Austin.
People are frustrated because the actions of City leaders are incongruent with their rhetoric. As of today, four different plans dating back to 1985 have assured Austinites that City Hall is going to address homelessness, and very possibly end it. But for the everyday Austin resident, they see the opposite. With the new Council structure in place for almost 5 years and more than $30 million spent each year on homelessness, the issue is actually getting worse – growing by 5% last year and 23% since 2015.
Predictably, the city has only one answer: Spend More Money. Yet, we need only look to San Francisco ($300 million annually) and Seattle (more than $1 billion annually for the metro area) to see that no amount of public spending will mitigate the problem of homelessness, if it is done piecemail, and without effective and accountable measures of success.
As the items came to a conclusion and the votes were clear, Austin Mayor Steve Adler reiterated to the boisterous crowd that homelessness is the most important issue the Council will tackle. He later told the Austin-American Statesman that these actions were “essential to address the city’s homeless problem before it reaches the same level of severity as cities like Seattle.”
This puzzled most who know what happened in Seattle – relaxed ordinances for camping and panhandling, less enforcement of public disturbances, building shelters here and there, and trying to build government houses for all of the homeless – because it seems that, in fact, Austin is headed in exactly the same direction as Seattle. Recently, the Seattle Mayor has had to change course and start cleaning up some of the camping the City had previously endorsed.
Seattle, like Austin, is one of America’s most liberal cities, making decisions with their hearts, instead of through thoughtful outcome based policy. On many things, such as transit, wage policies, land development regulations, and affordable housing, the Austin Council heralds Seattle as a “best practice” city and one they intend to emulate.
While the latest debate on homelessness centered around specific policies, such as criminalization and the location of a shelter, the real conflict is that of ideological approach. And at this important crossroads, the City Council is faced with a choice: Will they reinvent their “solutions” to the issue and stand up to those currently controlling the debate. Or, will the City Council continue to acquiesce to these well-intentioned, but misguided city hall do-gooders, in a self-satisfying drum circle of endless compassion, resulting in a worsening of the homeless problem? This remains to be seen.
Let us take a step back and understand what homelessness is. It is the absence of family and community. It is disaffiliation. Over time, as our community and family bonds have broken down, the most vulnerable of us fall prey to addiction, isolation, despair, and mental illness. Donald Burnes, the head of the Poverty and Homeless Center at the University of Denver put it like this:
“Homelessness occurs when people no longer have relationships; they have drifted into isolation, often running away from the support networks they could count on in the past.”
As the great Alan Graham will tell you, “it is the catastrophic loss of family.”
The first group currently driving the actions on homelessness in Austin – activists, special interest groups, and City Council Members who believe the city’s primary role is that of the caregiver. They believe what the Mayor said recently in KUT interview, that “most people that are homeless on our streets are people that do not have mental health challenges or addictions.” The empirical data shows us the opposite: drug addiction is the #1 cause (38% dependent on alcohol and 26% on other drugs) of homelessness in cities and mental health is the #3 cause (20-25% – National Coalition for the Homeless).
This group believes they can simply take care of everybody. That if only the City could force more people into shelters – which data tells us much of the homeless population do not want – then build enough homes, furnish them, provide transit passes, pay the utility deposit, and provide constant surveillance of the individual, that person would be able to escape homelessness.
They, like a codependent family using ineffective, even patronizing methods to help an alcoholic loved one, devolve into endless compassion, permissiveness, enablement, and turning a blind eye to the problem, not focusing on solutions that promote constructive behavior and effective controls for destructive behavior.
They fail to acknowledge that the City’s current “plan,” both shows a clear misunderstanding of the problem and that it has been tried and failed in other cities. San Francisco, like Seattle and Austin, called for, in addition to $300 million annually spent on homelessness, to build 304 new shelter beds, 300 more units of permanent supportive housing, and a $500 million dollar affordable housing bond, with rezoning efforts to allow higher-density and more affordable housing. Does this sound familiar? It does because it is the exact same playbook. And San Francisco’s homeless crisis rose by 17% in less than 2 years. New York has been building “affordable housing” since 1934 and still has a wait list of 270,000. And Austin’s own Strategic Housing Blueprint recognizes that building affordable housing “alone [is] not a realistic solution” as the “cost to close the gap is estimated to grow to $11.18 billion.”
And this leads us to our second group of people, those who believe the solution is for the city to be more progressive. They desperately try to frame the issue as another fight between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This group, which is led by Council Member Gregorio Casar (known in inner circles as the real Mayor of Austin) and his band of true believers and paid activists, are intent to pull the Council further to the left, and usher in their view of utopia.
They show up for all his causes making noise and hissing at dissidents and public servants. Socialist stalwarts, the Austin chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, which sat in the chambers, proudly told Community Impact that they knocked on thousands of doors to organize support for the ordinance changes. This group believes that all of their policy positions are virtuous and are justified only by day dreams and anecdotes. If somebody dare #resist their plans for our future, they enjoy the “naming and shaming” of anyone who questions their utopian plans as racist xenophobes.
What is apparent here, much like Seattle, is they have become a force. And in Austin, like Seattle, they are now driving the policy bus (electric and zero-emission of course).
And their newly found power and shame tactics created the perfect storm for those currently financially invested in the status quo to jump on that bus. Despite a series of scathing audits reported by KUT that nine of the city’s largest homeless service contracts met city benchmarks for performance only about half the time, they are positioning themselves for greater funding. And when it became clear the performance goals would not be met, the city just lowered them by fiat. In response to these audits the city established new goals, but these ones, leaving many scratching their heads, also “may not effectively measure success.” It seems to many in the public that outcomes are not actually that important.
With tens of millions of dollars annually on the table the status quo joined up with the other two groups to move the city forward on their plan. A plan that is not financially-feasible, not driven by proper metrics of success, not innovative, and is not able to clearly distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. And in a Freudian slip, the title of the Community Impact piece said it all – “In win for homeless advocates, Austin loosens laws against public camping, solicitation, and lying down.” But what about Austin residents, housed and homeless?
The city is able to keep the gravy-train rolling, espouse moral victories, and, in an almost Orwellian nightmare, proclaim that they are actually breaking away from the status quo.
In the coming weeks, we will be investigating practical and realistic solutions to the crisis, learning from innovations and mistakes made elsewhere.
We believe this requires introspection and humility. It must include a review and reconsideration of all existing contracts and efforts, ordinances, shelter locations (including the downtown ARCH), measures of success, possible enforcement mechanisms, the reality that many homeless are coming from outside Austin, plans for clean up and maintaining public order and developing an actual long-term plan to address the homeless crisis. And it must recognize that no government, alone, has been able to solve a homelessness crisis and that a real solution must be community-driven.
What is clear is that the city is barreling down a dangerous path, and we are faced with a choice – to continue to sacrifice the well-being of our residents (housed and homeless) to misguided policies that exacerbate problems. Or, will we as a community take a step back, and commit to doing what is necessary to do right by Austinites. Austin Civic Fund believes we are capable, and knows that the time is today.