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One City’s Pioneering Project to Push Police Funding Into Housing the Homeless

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Homelessness in the U.S., which was already on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased in 2020, exacerbated by the economic realities of the pandemic. Austin, Texas, is no exception, with an estimated 11 percent increase in homeless people counted in the city and Travis County between 2019 and 2020, according to the point-in-time (PIT) count reported in the Austin American-Statesman. Of Austin’s population of roughly 1 million, an estimated 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2020 PIT count. Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar says this is a number “a community of [more than] a million folks should be able to care [for].”

In an effort to do so, the city of Austin has been purchasing underutilized hotels and transforming them into housing and services for people experiencing homelessness. In a February 4 meeting, the Austin City Council approved the purchase of a fourth hotel—which will provide 150 new homes to the homeless population in the city. Casar says the city plans to move forward on purchasing a fifth and a sixth hotel in the future.

“We have found sufficient resources in the city budget to acquire more hotels because we really believe that it’s a strategy for significantly reducing homelessness in the city,” he says.

In addition to providing long-term and transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness, the hotels purchased by the city will also provide supportive services, including mental health services, trauma services and job services.

“We are working with trusted community groups and nonprofit organizations to provide services at the hotels because we know that there are lots of folks who have experienced real trauma while living on the street and who need support so that their homelessness can permanently end,” Casar says. “And then there are lots of other folks who just need a connection to a job and a stable address for a while so that they can get back on their feet.”

According to Tara Pohlmeyer, communications director for Council Member Casar, Integral Care and Caritas of Austin have submitted letters of interest in operating the hotels and providing services, and the Homeless Services Division (HSD) anticipates negotiating a contract with a service provider/operator for each hotel in April.

He says while shelters provide an important service, oftentimes, they’re just temporarily addressing the issue. The plan for the converted hotels is for them to serve as a more permanent housing solution, to address the real needs of each person they house.

“That’s the way that we can reduce the amount of homelessness in the city, instead of just sort of hiding it, or moving [the homeless population] around while the numbers grow,” Casar says.

To pay for these supportive services, the city will reallocate dollars originally assigned to the police budget, as part of its project to reimagine safety, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public demand. Funding for operations and services of the hotels will come from Austin Public Health, using a portion of the additional $6.5 million added to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to address homelessness during the city council’s efforts to reimagine public safety.

“We have never had so many people engage in local government before [the BLM movement],” he says. “There were tens of thousands of people that contacted my office alone. In the weeks of protest over the summer [in 2020], we had hundreds of people testifying at city council meetings, for hours, about the changes that they were calling on us to make. I think that was really important. It shifted all of our perspectives. The community here in Austin is calling on us to be real leaders for our community and for people across the state and across the country. Austin, I think, actually responded to the call to transform police budgets in a way that very few cities across the country did.”

Casar says while cities often have the dollars to make the capital investment in property to house the homeless, the long-term funding for operating those buildings and providing supportive services tends to be the challenge. He says prior to last summer’s BLM movement, which pressured cities across the nation to reallocate police funds into supportive services, one of Austin’s greatest challenges regarding homelessness was related to finding that long-term funding.

“The dollars from the police budget are going to provide the services and operate the hotels,” he says. “No matter how many changes I and some others have tried to make to the budget in years past, we’ve, oftentimes, struggled to make really transformative change because so many dollars get wrapped up in the police budget. This last year, there was finally an opportunity for us to rethink that budget and recognize that we were spending so many dollars on jailing folks experiencing homelessness and policing people experiencing homelessness—but that actually doesn’t reduce homelessness.”

Between the four hotels the city has purchased, there are about 300 rooms, some of which might be able to house a couple of people, and many of them just a single person. The plan is for the city to continue to purchase additional hotels and expand the programs offered, Casar says.

“We have to pull hundreds of people off the streets this year,” Casar says. “I think that would make a really significant difference.”

The extreme winter weather experienced in Texas through February and March makes the need to provide safe shelter and supportive services for people living on the streets all the more urgent.

“In a city as prosperous as Austin, no one should have to live on the streets, period. That became even more clear as we saw folks still sleeping out under bridges when we knew that zero-degree temperatures were coming—and sometimes there were hotels or lit-up buildings right across the streets where they could have safely stayed,” Casar says. “It’s clearly already so dangerous to live outdoors and without a home, and these extreme weather events make it even more clear why we can and should reorganize our resources and our priorities to make sure that everybody has a place to lay their head at night that is safe.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.


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A Nation Where Only The Rich Have Homes?

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In our daily lives, as anyone who keeps a household budget can attest, the unexpected happens all the time. A refrigerator motor fails. Some part on your car you never realized existed breaks down. A loved one passes away and you have to — you want to — be at the funeral a thousand miles away.

“Unexpected” expenses like these will, sooner or later, hit all of us. But all of us, says new research out of the Federal Reserve, can’t afford them.

In fact, just under 40 percent of Americans, says the Fed’s sixth annual household economics survey, “would have difficulty handling an emergency expense as small as $400.”

A fifth of American adults, the new Fed study adds, had major unexpected medical bills last year. An even larger share of Americans — one quarter — “skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.”

Meanwhile, 17 percent of American adults can’t afford to pay all their monthly bills, even if they don’t experience an unexpected expense.

The new Fed report offers no anecdotal color, just waves of carefully collected statistical data. For a sense of what these stats mean in human terms, we need only look around where we live, particularly if we live in one of the many metro areas where inequality is squeezing millions of Americans who once considered themselves solidly “middle class.” Places like the Bay Area in California.

San Francisco, recent research shows, now has more billionaires per capita than any other city in the world. By one reckoning, San Francisco also has the highest cost of living in the world, as all those billionaires — and the rest of the city’s ultra rich — bid up prices on the most desirable local real estate.

But the Bay Area squeeze goes beyond the confines of San Francisco. Nearby Oakland and Berkeley are facing enormous affordable housing shortages as well. The Bay Area as a whole now has more than 30,000 homeless.

Two-thirds of these homeless Californians haven’t been able to find temporary sheltering services. They live and sleep outdoors, many in lines of RVs parked along public right-of-ways like the waterfront in Berkeley. And that has infuriated nearby residents who’ve paid big bucks for their residences.

Berkeley city council member Kate Harrison has felt the fury first-hand — from constituents who wanted the RVs of homeless people banned from the waterfront.

“I paid a million dollars for my place,” one constituent told her, “and they have a better view.”

Local officials in Bay Area cities don’t know quite what to do. On one side, they have people without shelter who have real and unmet human needs. On the other, they have angry affluents with shelter who see their neighborhoods under siege from homeless hordes.

The more people spend on housing, Berkeley councilperson Harrison has come to understand, the more “aggrieved” they feel.

“Only the one?percent here,” she adds, “feel economically secure.”

In other words, inequality has local officials coming and going. The ranks of the homeless are growing because almost all the gains from America’s growing economy, as the Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould testified to Congress this past March, are “going to households at the top.”

Empathy for the plight of the homeless, meanwhile, is withering away, particularly among society’s most fortunate, as the social distance between that top and the rest of society widens. The rich have climbed so far up the income ladder that they can’t see the humanity on the faces of people stuck on the lower rungs.

One telling sign of our unequal times: In wealthy Bay Area neighborhoods, the Washington Post reports, GoFundMe campaigns have emerged “to finance lawsuits against affordable housing proposals.”

What happens when empathy all but totally disappears? You get the life that the 33-year-old Ashana Cunningham lives in southwest Connecticut, the home to some of America’s grandest hedge-fund fortunes — as well as more separate and unequal housing, a devastating just-published analysis notes, “than nearly everywhere else in the country.”

Cunningham, the mother of three, lives in a homeless shelter amid abandoned factories and rundown houses. She takes a long bus commute every day to a high-priced day care center in one of Connecticut’s poshest areas. Cunningham couldn’t afford to live in that area even if she made triple her $12.50 per hour salary because, as joint reporting by Pro Publica and the Connecticut Mirror details, Connecticut’s wealthiest communities have been blocking construction of any modestly priced housing “within their borders for the last two decades, often through exclusionary zoning requirements.”

Towns like Westport — median home value: $1.15 million — have surrounded themselves “with invisible walls to block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.”

One local developer five years ago proposed a project for Westport that would accommodate up to 12 families via a mix of single- and multifamily housing units on a 2.2-acre property he had purchased. The density, the developer explain, would allow the units to sell “for less than the typical Westport home.”

The Westport Planning and Zoning Commission denied his plan.

“To me,” declared one commissioner who voted against the plan, “this is ghettoizing Westport.”

In reality, the wealthy in localities like Westport have effectively “ghettoized” their corner of Connecticut, locking in place an extreme inequality that’s doing deep damage to the young people who grow up within it. So suggests a study that appeared last month in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The researchers involved in the study examined data from nearly 30,000 schools and found “the first evidence of an association between early-life inequality and adolescent bullying.”

“Put another way,” explains an analysis of the study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, “there is a link between early life inequality and being bullied at school later in life.”

The new study’s lead author, Frank Elgar of Montreal’s McGill University, emphasizes that the link his team’s researchers found rests between inequality and bullying, not poverty and bullying. The “effect of growing up in an unequal setting,” Elgar points out, may well be significantly — and negatively — altering the course of children’s development.

Just how does inequality have this impact? The researchers say we need more research. How about they start that probing in southwest Connecticut.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on June 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: A veteran labor journalist, Sam Pizzigati has written widely on economic inequality, in articles, books, and online, for both popular and scholarly readers.


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