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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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Mindless Underfunding Of Schools Continues, Doing Harm To Kids

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Jeff BryantHigh school graduation season is in full bloom in many communities around the nation, but in some places, parents with children still in schools have to be worried about the conditions of the schools they’ll return to in the fall – or even if the schools will open at all.

As states wrap up their budget seasons, many lawmakers are proving they simply aren’t up to the task of adequately funding schools. State spending, which accounts for about half of most public school districts’ budgets, has been in steep decline for a number of years in most states, leaving most local taxing authorities, which provide about the other half, unable to keep up unless the populace is wealthy enough to withstand higher property taxes. (Federal spending accounts for less than 10 percent of school funding, historically.)

Many of these lawmakers say the problem with the nation’s education system is lack of accountability, but school kids and their teachers are being hurt by government officials not being accountable to adequately and equitably fund our schools.

In Chicago, the nation’s fourth largest school system, the district’s school chief announced schools may not open in the fall due to a budget impasse in the state capital. Separate funding bills in the state House and Senate have drawn the ire of conservative Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who would prefer to inflict on schools a program of tough love that includes a $74 million cut in funding to Chicago.

It’s not as if the city’s schools are living in the lap of luxury. Inadequate budgets have driven up class sizes in every grade way beyond the point they are officially permitted. District chief Forest Claypool has already told Chicago principals they should prepare for whopping cuts of between 20 to 40 percent to their school budgets, which will drive class sizes through the roof.

The budget impasse, according to a report from the Associated Press, imperils schools across the state. According to the AP reporter. Democrats want new taxes, “but Rauner first wants pro-business and union-weakening reforms, ideas Democrats say hurt the middle class.”

In other words, no more money for schoolchildren until teachers make sacrifices.

As Rauner was defending his miserly stance, he took a swipe at Chicago schools, comparing them to “crumbling prisons.” That set off a firestorm on Twitter, where Chicago teachers defended the good things their institutions do to provide to students despite the budget cuts.

Actually, if the schools were more like prisons, they might be more apt to get a funding increase, as Rauner has proposed a substantial increase to prison spending for 2016.

Illinois isn’t the only state hell-bent on cutting money for schools.

The Wall Street Journal reports that state lawmakers across the nation, especially in the Midwest, are at seemingly intractable odds over how “to make sure the next school year can start on time.”

In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback has called a special session of the state legislature “after the state’s supreme court last month once again ruled that the state’s funding formula is inequitable and threatened to shut off funding to the schools,” according to a report from Education Week.

The court keeps telling state lawmakers the state is not funding schools based on what they deserve, according to another EdWeek report. State Republican lawmakers have considered various ways to circumnavigate the ruling, including changing the state constitution, but Democrats siding with the court forced their hand by petitioning for the special session.

Meanwhile, schools in Kansas City, Kan., where nearly 90 percent of the students are poor, “had to cut more than $50 million from its already tight budget because of state cutbacks,” according to The Hechinger Report.

The cuts are promulgated regardless of how the schools perform. In the case of Kansas City, schools had been making “double-digit” increases in some measures of achievement prior to the financial cutbacks that started in response to economic downturns in 2008.

Hechinger quotes a district administrator, “You could see the performance begin to decline as we had to cut back on people, human resources and all kinds of things to support our students.”

In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers enacted improvements to the state funding formula, a long-standing problem in the state, but left budgets mired at levels below what is needed to make the formula meaningful. Due to the inadequacy of state funding, a statewide survey of local officials finds “at least 60 percent of Pennsylvania school districts plan to raise property taxes and nearly a third expect to cut staff,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A third of respondents said their schools will increase class sizes in the year ahead.

This time the governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat leading the charge for increasing school funding, but the legislature controlled by Republicans “oppose new taxes and say the state needs to cut costs and find new funding streams.”

In Michigan, Detroit public schools will be out of money and unable to make payroll by June 30, according to a report from Reuters. House Republicans narrowly passed a bill to bail out the beleaguered school system, but Democratic leaders and the city’s mayor and teachers call the proposal a wasteful stopgap that funnels more money to charter schools while leaving the district adrift.

The big problem left unaddressed is how the state continues to underfund schools throughout the system. As a blog post from a district superintendent in the state explains, education funding in Michigan is in a 20-year decline. “This makes it impossible to provide the same level of teacher staffing, instructional materials, facilities maintenance, administration and operations,” he laments.

Outside the Midwest, “natural resource-dependent states” – such as Alaska, Louisiana, Oklahoma and West Virginia – are pulling “millions from their rainy day funds,” rather than raising taxes, to fund schools, according to Education Week. In Louisiana, the budget proposal would still leave schools in the lurch financially, leading to “teacher layoffs, cuts to programs, and cuts to the state’s department of education.”

Arizona is taking generally the same course, passing new legislation that raises education funding by raiding the state’s permanent endowment that supports stable financial resources for schools.

In Trenton, New Jersey, hundreds of teachers and school supporters rallied to protest funding cuts being proposed by the state’s conservative Republican Governor Chris Christie.

In North Carolina, conservative lawmakers are bragging about new teacher raises they just passed, but the state budget cuts millions from principal training, school Internet service, after-school programs, and a scholarship program to help fill shortages in math and science teachers.

“Can [school] districts raise expectations and improve achievement on a shoestring?” asks the author of the Hechinger article cited above. “How little money is too little for schools to function well?”

Maybe instead of cutting school funding to see how low it can go, it’s time we asked instead, “How much money for education is too much?” Indeed, without any real evidence that excess funding in the system is actually harming students and taxpayers, this continued austerity in education spending is mindless.

This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on June 10, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.


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