Updated June 9, 2021

Council to commit to ‘transformational’ homelessness spending – if others do too

City Council’s plan to spend a majority of the city’s share of American Rescue Plan Act money on homelessness is gaining traction, with a vote scheduled for Thursday to approve a spending framework for the $143.6 million in federal stimulus money.

City staffers propose spending $84 million – that’s 58 percent – of the ARPA money on various homelessness services, though Council could modify that amount between now and Thursday.

But there is one big caveat in regard to homelessness spending: county government and philanthropists must buy in too.

It would take $515 million in the next two years to solve the problem, according to staffers, who based their estimate on a recent homelessness summit with local stakeholders. Even with the ARPA funds, the city alone could not provide anywhere near that amount, making the proposed “transformational” joint spending effort close to an all-or-nothing bet on solving homelessness.

If everyone buys in, Council believes that the city can effectively end homelessness by providing 3,000 homes in three years. If others don’t buy in, Council may decide to stick with the current homelessness budget and spend less of the ARPA funds on homelessness.

City staffers, based on previous Council direction, recommend spending the majority of the $143.6 million remaining from ARPA on homelessness.

At Monday’s special called meeting, Mayor Steve Adler outlined the stakes: “If you look at other cities that have not addressed this in that great way, the challenge continues to grow … I don’t know what you do if you’re Los Angeles or Portland or San Francisco or Seattle, because the scale of their challenge is so much bigger than what we’re dealing with.”

Adler said because Austin’s problem is not yet so extreme, there’s still a chance to solve it. “If we don’t act,” Adler said, “I think the penalty that the city will pay for this six, eight years from now will be enormous.”

If the city’s spending framework is approved, the next step will be to court Travis County and philanthropists. So far, none have revealed plans to commit lots of money to homelessness, perhaps waiting for the city to make the first move.

Council Member Alison Alter said the lack of buy-in so far is partly “because we don’t have the details out there. We haven’t figured out how to communicate.”

Alter and Council Member Leslie Pool said that they aren’t ready for a Thursday vote, preferring to gather more details, community input, and outside support during Council’s month-and-a-half summer break. If Council postpones the issue, it would be until July 29.

Most Council members opposed postponing the vote. Council Member Ann Kitchen argued that contingency on the funds addresses Alter’s concern. “We will want to revisit how we allocate dollars if we don’t get those commitments, but we’re not spending those dollars now.”

The ARPA funds will be allocated over the course of this fiscal year and the next, pending Council approval. $44.8 million has already been spent on Covid-related public health services and a website portal where people can apply for various types of relief money.

Council members agreed that occasional check-ins with city staffers would provide assurance as to how the homelessness funds are being used and flexibility to change the way the funds are spent. Council will get other opportunities to weigh in, such as approval of contracts with homeless service providers or the purchase of new hotels for permanent supportive housing.

Council members also stressed the importance of good communication with constituents.

“We have not been able to sufficiently invest in these areas, but we have made investments,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “I know that’s really hard for our community to understand when they see that we have not yet housed each and every one of our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, but I just really think it’s important that we communicate clearly with our public about it.”

Updated 6/1/21

City staff ask for more time, direction on Austin’s plan to set up homeless encampments

preliminary plan to set up encampments on city-owned land in Austin has hit a snag.

City Council directed city staffers to identify land for temporary camps last month after voters reinstated the ban on public encampments. The initial list was met with pushback, so staffers have asked to extend Thursday’s deadline to next month and begin setting up a temporary shelter in the meantime.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison told City Manager Spencer Cronk and staff at a briefing Tuesday she wished the rollout of a list of 45 potential sites was more transparent both internally at City Hall and with residents.

She said she found out about the list the day before it was released May 18.

“I don’t think it offers our constituents much in the way of … (us) representing them well, when it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the kind of clear communication with the city manager’s office that we should have,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to find out the day before.”

Last week, Harper-Madison and other Black leaders suggested the selection process didn’t examine Austin’s history of racism and redlining. More than half the proposed sites were on the east side, which has been historically underserved by the city.

Ultimately, staff found most of the 45 sites were unusable for various reasons, and a bill passed by the Texas Legislature could take parkland completely off the table.

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department Director Kim McNeeley told Council only one site would be viable under the bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott has signaled he would sign.

In light of that, staffers suggested the city set aside $4.2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to set up a temporary shelter at one of the hotels the city acquired during the pandemic to house Austinites at risk of contracting Covid-19. With that money, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey told Council, the city could operate the site for a year. Staff expects it could be up and running by mid-July.

Council passed a resolution May 6 to look into encampments, directing staffers to find city-owned land that could accommodate 50 people on a 2-acre tract or 100 people on a 4-acre tract for a period of two years. Properties needed to have access to transportation and food resources, and couldn’t be within a floodplain or an area at risk of wildfires.

At a work session after the list of 45 sites was released, Council members removed high-traffic and environmentally sensitive parkland from the list, as well as land close to schools or already in the process of being developed by the city.

In a memo ahead of Tuesday’s briefing, Grey suggested the criteria Council established severely limited the city’s options. She asked Council to make them less broad to include more public land.

After that, staff could come back to Council with options by July 1, the memo said.