Just a couple of months ago, Steve Harrell got a ticket just for sitting in downtown Austin. It was around 4:30 p.m. and he was among a group of other people experiencing homelessness when a police officer approached, pointed at him and issued the citation, he told officials at an Austin City Council meeting last month.
“There has to be a better way,” he said at the meeting.
Two weeks later, the law that got him the ticket was changed when the City Council reformed three municipal ordinances criticized for criminalizing homelessness.
Lying or sitting down in public is no longer prohibited as long as people don’t block access to spaces. Simply asking for money is no longer illegal, though aggressive confrontations are. And sleeping in some public spaces (excluding parks and City Hall) is no longer banned, unless it is deemed to endanger someone’s health or safety — or if it impedes the “reasonable use of a public area.”
Debate over the changes went until 2:20 a.m the day of the final vote. Some residents and business organizations, like the Austin Downtown Alliance, worried the updates would make the streets dirtier or make it more unsafe for some to walk at night.
“Until you actually have safe places identified [for homeless people to stay], we don't understand why you're changing the ordinance,” said Kimberly Levinson, vice president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association.
But many people who showed up supported the measure. The council approved two of the ordinances unanimously and the camping ordinance passed with a 9-2 vote. The debate could have ended there. But it didn’t.
In yet another episode of the ongoing fight between cities and the state, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to override the ordinances. Saying that “the horror stories are piling up,” he shared a tweet that wrongly linked a car accident to a group of people experiencing homelessness running into traffic.
Later, when asked by The Texas Tribune in a press conference about possible solutions to the issue, he pointed to the approach taken by San Antonio’s largest homeless organization.
“There are so many options that are available that are superior to people camping out on Congress Avenue,” Abbott said. “Probably the best template for this is a strategy that's been developed in San Antonio that I urge all communities to take a look at as the possible best practice. It's called Haven for Hope because what it does — it does not ignore the homeless; it helps the homeless be placed on a pathway toward recovery and improvement in their lives.”
But while one of Haven for Hope’s chief approaches to combating homelessness has helped keep people with nowhere else to go out of the city’s downtown, experts say it doesn’t follow what the evidence — or even what the federal government — suggests to help people find stable housing.
"Many of them would be downtown"
Latest in the Homeless in Texas series
Just 10 minutes away from the Alamo, west of San Antonio’s downtown, Haven for Hope’s massive 22-acre campus is dedicated to taking care of people experiencing homelessness. Before Abbott referenced the group’s approaches as an example for the state, he gave it the Governor’s Volunteer Award in 2017.
With an annual budget of approximately $20 million, Haven for Hope serves around 1,700 people on any given day, according to CEO and President Kenny Wilson. Around 80% of people who seek help for homelessness in San Antonio come through Haven for Hope’s $100 million campus, which has dormitories for men, women and families and an open sleeping area called the Prospect’s Courtyard.
“This is primarily people from the streets that can come in and stay with us one night or a year,” Wilson said. “And in both places, anyone who stays at Haven, they have access to good food, three great meals a day, hot meals, laundry, medical care and clothing.”
Brenda Mascorro is the executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, the regional planning body in Bexar County that coordinates housing and services funding for homeless families and individuals. She said Haven for Hope’s shelter and collaboration with 184 nonprofit partners is a critical part of San Antonio’s response to the issue.
“The benefits of Haven for Hope are vast,” she said.
Wilson said 5,000 people have gone through Haven for Hope’s “transformational program,” where people experiencing homelessness are given personalized help finding places to live.
“We follow them, and after a year about 90% of them are still in their home,” Wilson said.
But not everyone agrees with the organization’s approach. Program participants can be asked to take a urine test or a breathalyzer if alcohol or drug use is suspected. If people are intoxicated or high, they can’t enter the campus until they are sober. Once sober, they will meet with a treatment team to discuss the situation and analyze if treatment is needed.
This approach contradicts the current trend in homelessness services, which instead aims to find housing — despite conditions like alcoholism or drug use — and then focus on solving other problems through support services. This is what experts call the “housing first” model.
In the last two decades, dozens of studies have quantified what many say is the model’s positive impact. The American Journal of Public Health published a study in 2004 that found around 80% of people helped through the housing first model remained housed after two years.
At the same time, research suggests that model saves taxpayers by cutting the costs of jailing or providing health care to people experiencing homelessness. A study published in 2006 found that in Denver, the approach led to a decline in emergency room visits that saved $31,545 per program participant. And incarceration days and costs were reduced by 76%.
The model is used elsewhere in Texas, including in Houston, which has been successful in cutting its rate of people experiencing homelessness. And the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has adopted it as policy since George W. Bush’s administration. Current HUD Secretary Ben Carson supports it, and the agency considers its use a priority.
“While it might be more expensive because you are providing housing, it ends up saving money,” said Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California. “It is at least [as] cost effective as the other model and also certainly much more effective” in terms of keeping people housed, he said. “If you get an outcome that is far more better without more costs, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Wilson, with Haven for Hope, said that his organization partially relies on the housing first approach, through services offered by the organization’s partners. But he added that “there is no one way to solve homelessness.” He said that he has seen people get sober, find a place to live and then relapse.
“The downside of just saying, ‘Get people in a house,’ is their needs are so profound, so deep, so lengthy,” Wilson said.
But some people disagree with another aspect: having one massive shelter for a major city. The national trend is to have multiple smaller shelters.
“Haven for Hope is a big shelter with a big budget, but it does not end homelessness,” said Robert Friant, managing director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a New York-based organization that finances and consults on homelessness and housing. “Shelters don’t end homelessness. We need affordable housing. And what I’m conveying is evidence based. Homes end homelessness.”
The Texas Homeless Network, the non-profit that coordinates homeless efforts across the state, values the work done in Haven for Hope, but emphasized that the goal is to find permanent housing for everyone experiencing homelessness.
“Many communities have had success with ending homelessness for special populations but housing was the key piece. Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and most recently Abilene, have all effectively ended Veteran homelessness by securing housing and placing people in those units quickly. We know this can be replicated in other areas and with other subpopulations but we need housing,” the organization said in a statement.
In San Antonio, the number of people experiencing homelessness has remained more or less stable since the subprime mortgage crisis ended. Although the annual count is hardly a precise census, it does underscore that San Antonio hasn’t been able to decrease its homeless population the way Houston has.
Still, San Antonio has seen a visible change in the city’s urban core.
“Homelessness in downtown San Antonio has dropped about 80% since San Antonio Haven for Hope opened,” Wilson said. “We're near downtown, as I said, and we have 1,700 people here. I often wonder where would they be if they weren't here. And many of them would be downtown and on the River Walk, in front of the hotels.”
Multiple shelters and permanent housing
Since the approval of Austin’s reworked ordinances, Downtown Austin Alliance workers have seen the number of encounters with people sleeping or lying in public areas in the business district rise from 2,000 to 4,000 a month, CEO Dewitt Peart said at a forum organized by KUT radio earlier this month.
But at the same KUT event, Mayor Steve Adler strongly defended the policy.
“We haven’t created any more people experiencing homelessness over the last month. Now they are more visible,” Adler said, “but it is still the same person that needs a place to stay.”
The mayor said previous versions of the ordinances were costly to the city at a time when market-driven housing prices are rising for residents.
"I am tired of wasting taxpayer dollars not addressing this situation and just moving people around that are trying to comply, but living in a city where it is impossible," Adler said.
Austin’s approach has been to steer funds toward multiple shelters and permanent housing before addressing other issues like substance abuse.
“It’s so expensive to shelter people without having the resources to get them out and back to housing and to the community,” said Ann Howard, who recently stepped down as executive director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition to run for the Travis County Commissioners Court. “It really comes down to money: Those huge campuses become intractable.”
City officials will discuss opening one shelter in each City Council district. In June, the council approved the construction of a new center in South Austin.
“It’s a housing focused center, that people go through and not to,” council member Ann Kitchen said at the KUT forum. “It’s a safe, welcoming place to live and be connected to services to help them get to permanent housing.”
Austin plans to spend $15.3 million of the city’s next budget in homelessness relief. That includes money for rental assistance, legal aid and the new shelter that the city recently approved.
And the local homeless organizations are also partnering for a “pay for success” project, a new approach in Texas through which financial institutions, foundations and a health-focused organization would fund housing and assistance for 250 individuals that have been in and out of jails and hospitals. The success of the interventions will be measured with data related to recidivism, the amount of emergency room visits and how many individuals remain housed. If it is successful, investors get their money back. This way, the financial risk of the intervention doesn’t fall on the government.
“Republicans and Democrats can work together on it because it's fiscally conservative for the government, since it shifts the risk” away from taxpayers, Howard says. “The hope is that if the data proves that this permanent supportive housing helps, then we expect that governments will fund this and let go of funding things that they don't have data for or that don’t prove out.”
Lara Korte contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former board member of The Texas Tribune, has also been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Austin’s homeless-related ordinances were approved unanimously. Although the ordinances related to sitting or lying in public places and aggressive confrontation were indeed approved unanimously, two council members voted against the camping ordinance.