As Austin evolves, so do its social issues, and lately, the spotlight has fallen on homelessness, especially as it occurs downtown. A number of converging factors account for the increased attention to the issue.
Austin’s escalating development has pushed the homeless population out of the shadows and onto the streets. While the number of homeless people has been mostly steady, with 2,087 counted in 2010 and 2,036 in 2017, at last half of that population reportedly lives downtown, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. At the same time, the Downtown Austin Alliance says that today, more than 12,000 people live downtown, a number that has doubled since 2000.
But two recent successes have also put homelessness in a new light, says Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin, which has been a major participant in these projects. With the success of the veterans homelessness campaign and another to end youth homelessness, city leaders are starting to see homelessness as a fixable problem.
“Rather than considering it an acceptable social ill,” she said, “organizations are coming together to identify solutions.”
At the same time, city leaders and nonprofits that confront homelessness are being more experimental in their approach. This past Friday saw the end of a 30-day pilot project to push more people into services offered at the Salvation Army, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and Caritas. And this month, the City Council adopted a resolution to launch a pilot that would offer day-labor work to panhandlers.
Experiments can be useful, says Quinn, but in Austin, the organizations that serve homeless people already know what works: housing. This month, Caritas of Austin, which provides housing and services for international refugees and local homeless people, is setting new goals for its programs and asking the community to help it determine what works to meet the need.
“We are going to continue to serve as many people we can, given the resources that we have,” said Quinn. “If we scale these methods to the size of the problem, I truly believe we can end homelessness for hundreds more people.”
Quinn said the housing solutions are different for each segment of the homeless population. In 2016, Caritas served 117 families experiencing a housing crisis with its “rapid rehousing” program to provide housing and support services. It also housed 160 people who experienced long bouts of homelessness with its long-term, supportive housing program. Caritas also operates a refugee resettlement program, which served 631 people, who Quinn points out had been homeless abroad before arriving here.
The support services are key to a client’s success, she said. Caritas employs professional staff to do everything from helping refugee families understand schools and grocery stores, to helping homeless parents find job training and employment, to helping chronically homeless people enroll in health services.
The goal of extending these services is what drove Caritas to open a second location in North Austin in 2015. John Lavorato, a Caritas board member, said, “We noticed there were a lot of people trying to come downtown to access services, so instead of making them come to us, we said, ‘We’ll come to you.’” The north location offers food, employment and education services to catch those families at risk of homelessness.
The new goal for the next four years is to increase private donations by $2 million a year to serve 80 percent more individuals and open a Caritas location in South Austin.
“We’re a 53-year-old organization, but innovation and adaptation have been cornerstones of our service,” said Quinn. “We’re just going to continue to focus on what the community needs most.”
PHOTO: Bill Colin was homeless for six years before being placed in a home through Caritas of Austin. The nonprofit has set goals to expand its programs and end homelessness in Austin. Photo contributed by Caritas of Austin.
NOTE: This article was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on September 17, 2017.