Homelessness in America is a national tragedy because of a combination of ill-conceived public policy, inadequate funding, negative stereotypes, and public fatigue and this in turn has allowed the crisis of homelessness to grow to epidemic proportions. The root causes of homelessness are structural: lack of affordable housing, economic immobility, and systemic racism. Homelessness reflects the failure of our social systems to serve people of all racial and ethnic groups equally in housing, education, employment, wealth accumulation, health care, and justice. The below information provided is simply an accumulation of information about homelessness.
There is no magic formula in solving homelessness. Austin is clearly attempting to address the issue with more housing and more services. Mayor Adler recently returned from a West Coast trip to observe and discuss learned from key cities. According to news accounts it reassured him that the Austin City Council is doing what they believe is right in addressing the issue before the situation goes from bad to worst. The Mayor notes that “if you ask them what they had wish they had done they’re would’ve said they wished they had acted sooner before their challenges just multiplied and mushroomed.” The Mayor adds “that’s the lesson overwhelmingly, build more homes, build more opportunities so there are places for people to go. We have shelter capacity in our city that we’re not using right now because we don’t have the resources to provide the support services to operate them at full capacity.”
In those cities where homelessness has grown to epic proportions, homelessness is a complex issue and has many sides where compassion gives way to anger where communities run out of patience with a daily view of sidewalks filled with tents and shopping carts having to step over individuals camped on the street and fear that they may catch some disease of placing themselves and their children in harm’s way.
Voters have supported and approved measures to build more permanent housing and provide more services to the homeless. But critics say more needs to be done, especially in finding short-term solutions and instituting stricter enforcement of laws to better control the makeshift public encampments. Public values are giving way to property values that are under siege. As homelessness continues to grow fear and anger are threatening to take the problem in a new, darker direction. In Austin this has become apparent with widespread criticism of the Austin City Council that recently made changes to ordinances that decriminalize existing sit/lie and camping ordinances. Other cities are walking back previous similar bans. Others are supporting existing bans. For example, Denver’s 300 initiative “Right to Survive” was defeated in May 2019 that would have effectively overturned Denver’s camping ban and allow homeless people to camp in outdoor public spaces like parks, sidewalks and vehicles.
This briefing paper relies on various newspaper and media sources and policy briefs from various public policy sources. Sources are not listed but are available upon request.
City Policies to Decriminalize the Homeless
Cities are increasingly enacting policies that restrict the visibly homeless from public spaces. At least 70 U.S. cities, including many of the “progressive cities along the west coast have come from some form of ordinance restricting sitting or lying on sidewalks in central city areas during business hours. The typical two sides to promoting and resisting sit/lie ordinances are neoliberal forces and right to the city forces.
The widespread strategy for controlling the use of public space by the very poor is one in a suite of “neoliberal” policies that shape the geographies of public space in cities in to serve the needs of capital. Neoliberal thought is based on the idea that the economy is best run by individuals working in their self-interest, organized through market forces. Neoliberal policies are a powerful influence on the shape of the city, including poor people’s experience of it. The current neoliberal argument is that cities must have clean and safe downtown areas, which the presence of homeless bodies impedes and the growth machine work to support the goals of “capital” to pressure local government to make changes that benefit business over the needs of residents.
The resistance to neoliberal forces sometimes called “right to the city” is present to varying degrees and forms in the cities. The resistance takes shape as people enact their rights to the city. With sit/lie ordinances, there is a complex relationship between neoliberalism and rights of residents to use the city that occurs during the local policy-making process. While the right to the city is a call for social justice for resistance, having a right to the city in and of itself doesn’t necessarily create a more socially just city. These policies have ramifications in daily life for those who are most impacted by them, and they are also key elements in the political, social, and cultural conflicts over the rights to the city.
The right to the city movement relies on the 9thCircuit Court decision that homeless people can’t be prosecuted for sleeping of public property unless alternative shelter is available. Prosecuting homeless people with no other place to sleep violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, there is some dissent on the court because this ruling is in conflict with reasoning underlying decisions on two other federal appeals courts. One of the cases upheld an ordinance barring camping on public property. The other upheld an ordinance criminalizing the public possession of alcohol as applied to homeless alcoholics.
Cities have been increasingly using sit/lie laws to control homeless people, making it a national policy issue. The National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty found that at least 30 percent of the 235 cities they surveyed have sit/lie ordinances. These cities are highly concentrated along the more urbanized west and east coast where high cost of living and housing set the backdrop for high numbers of visibly people living in public spaces. With the increasing numbers of people living in poverty, the conflicts over public space are likely to grow.
Major cities on the West Coast have enacted sit/lie ordinances then walked back them back because of the impacts associated with increasing homelessness and conditions that have worsened the health and safety of the cities. In 2010, San Francisco began discussing a sit/lie ordinance and grassroots opposition to it forced a vote down on such an ordinance. But the ordinance was put on a later ballot by the Mayor as Proposition L and passed with 54% of the votes. Enforcement of the ordinance began in 2011. In Portland, opposition to a sit/lie ordinance was confrontational. The Mayor supported a quality of life ordinance, but the ordinance was shut down by the courts. Later the Council passed another ordinance in 2004 that was also found to be unconstitutional. In a March 2019 report, Oregon’s general population represents 1.3 percent of the total U.S. population, but its homeless population is proportionately twice as larger, reaching 2.6 percent of the U.S. total. The report notes that Oregon’s high rents make the crisis more severe than those in most states and, left unabated, they will contribute to a growing homeless population going forward. The report recommends a number of policies for reducing homelessness in Oregon, including increased production of all kinds of housing, means-test rent subsidies for low-income households, targeted, intensive services for high-needs individuals, and more emergency shelters a last resort.
News stories round up the usual suspects for homelessness increases: high rents, low-paying jobs, drugs, alcohol, mental illness, domestic violence, and the release of prison or jail inmates without rehabilitation programs. But one reason for the exponential increase in homeless encampments is rarely mentioned: In 2017, Los Angeles made an agreement with the ACLU to allow people to sleep on the streets throughout the city.
It was a settlement of the Jones v. Los Angeles lawsuit, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the enforcement of the LA’s law against sleeping on the streets was unconstitutional. Municipal Code section 41.18(d) read, “No person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way, “unless they were attending a parade.
The Ninth Circuit declared section 41.18(d) “one of the most restrictive municipal laws regulating public spaces in the United States. “The Court noted that other cities, Las Vegas, for example, required some other conduct in combination with sitting, lying or sleeping – like blocking a public way- before it was a crime. But in LA, just the act of sitting, lying, or sleeping on the street or sidewalk was illegal. The Ninth Circuit ruled that “Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.” The city could have appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that it has a compelling reason to prohibit people from sitting, lying, or sleeping on sidewalks. It could have also changed the law to make it more narrowly tailored. But it didn’t.
Instead the city settled with ACLU, agreeing not to enforce section 41.18(d) anywhere in the city between the hours 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. until another 1,250 units of housing for the chronically homeless were constructed, including at least 625 in the downtown Skid Row area. By agreeing to the settlement, the ACLU gave up the ability to use the Ninth Circuit ruling as a precedent for future lawsuits, but they can still sue. So, LA is still abiding by the Jones agreement even though in 2015, the City reported that the requirements of the settlement had been met. Now the City has gone even further. In November 2107, voters approved Measure HHH, a parcel tax to fund $1.2 billion of housing and an increase in the sales tax to fund supportive services.
City Policies to Reduce Homelessness
Most strategies for reducing homelessness follow the policies like those recommended for Oregon. In Los Angeles, homelessness counts increased by 42% from 2010 to 2017 which now totals over 55,000. A report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) states that many factors contributed to such large increases in homelessness including increases in median rent over two decades by over 32% while median renter income decreased by 3% (adjusting for inflation) over the same time period. LAHSA’s report states that there are approximately over 9,500 people living in tents or encampments across Los Angeles. A study by Zillow shows that you start to see a rising rate of homelessness once a city’s average rent reaches 22 percent of median income, and an even more rapid rate of increase once that number hits 32 percent. In Los Angeles, the average rent is 49 percent of median income.
Los Angeles has become a brutal style of homelessness. Seventy-five percent of the city’s homeless population is unsheltered, typhus and typhoid threaten to create a public-health emergency, and a growing number of homeless people are either the perpetrators or the victims of violent crime.
Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, a Jewish Mexican American Rhodes Scholar, was once thinking about running for President is now in the midst of a homelessness crisis that could doom his political future. The Mayor’s response has been to increase public spending on homelessness sharply, but he’s had very little to show for it. He unveiled his “A Bridge Home Initiative”” to establish a temporary, emergency shelter in each of the City’s 15 Council districts, totaling 1,500 beds. A Bridge Home was framed as a solution to bridge the gap between sleeping on the streets and finding supportive, longer-term housing (hence, bridge housing). The expectation was that these bridge housing sites would be fast-tracked “from application to construction, allowing those that meet legal and environmental standards to open their doors in as little as 32 weeks.” His plan to build emergency shelters in all 15 districts of the city have been stalled by red tape and community resistance. In the first year of A Bridge Home, city officials say four sites have opened with 222 total beds. The biggest challenge to the Deputy L.A. Mayor is that there’s been higher site and building costs than the City anticipated. The $20 million city for fund for bridge housing that the Mayor announced in 2018 is tapped out.
The City of Austin recently approved the purchase of a commercial building for $8.6 million to provide 100 beds for the homeless in South Austin to serve as a homeless shelter that attempts to mirror Mayor Garcetti’s A Bridge Home. The facility will not operate as a drop-in facility with the client model to move people out of homelessness. Mayor Adler in his tour of L.A., has touted the L.A. and Seattle Bridge Housing as temporary places for people to stay who are transitioning off the streets and into permanent housing.
A new sales tax boosted for the city’s budget for dealing with homelessness to more than $600 million or $20,000 per homeless person, while a bond issuance brought in $1.2 billion to go toward constructing an estimated 10,000 housing units over the next decade, all of which would be preserved for people transitioning off the street. Los Angeles have taken about 16 percent of the funds from its recent sales-tax increase and packaged it as vouchers to offer to a share of its homeless population, allowing them to buy into the marketplace with the understanding that the their subsidy will fade over the course of a year, shifting the burden onto the new renter. But the steep monthly rent increases wash out the vouchers as the recipients are unable to find more than low-wage, part-time work.
The L.A. Mayor had touted the 20,000 people the city had moved off the street and into some form of housing. But while helping move 380 people off the streets each, some 480 others were joining the ranks of L.A. homelessness.
A large share of the city’s homeless are thought to mentally ill and is believed to be 25 percent. The City’s mild climate makes living outdoors a more viable option than in colder communities. L.A. also attracts an enormous number of homeless young adults from elsewhere in the U.S. This group grew by 25 percent in 2019.
The conventional public policy is that reforms to increase the supply of housing and if L.A,’s median rent can be pushed downward as a result of denser building then the city will have the breathing room to focus on helping the hardest cases. One of the ironies of the homelessness disaster is that homelessness is a problem most pronounced in successful cities, and the argument is that homelessness is not the product of poverty per se. Rather, homelessness is in no small part an artifact of being poor in a place where there is ferocious competition for a severely constrained supply of homes that drives up rent. Governor Newsome has set the goal of building 3.5 million new housing units in California over the next seven years, making an implicit acknowledgement that insufficient housing supply was the driving force behind the state’s high rents. This was considered a controversial stance for a progressive politician whose allies offer blame the “neoliberal” profit hungry landlords.
Scott Wiener, a state senator and one of the most progressive politicos from San Francisco introduced S.B. 50 that would have preempted local restrictions on density within neighborhoods with public transportation or in close proximity to employment centers.
The bill died in committee sunk by “anti-growth” legislators who denounced it as a threat to local control. The legislators wanted to preserve single-family neighborhoods in LA to what they perceived as disruptive change by the replacement of single-family homes with apartment buildings. These legislators are being targeted as contributing to the continuing swaths of LA into unsanitary homeless encampments. Mayor Garcetti refused to sign a City Council resolution denouncing S.B. 50 but he didn’t come out in favor it either. He suggested that while allowing the construction of duplexes and triplexes in keeping with the character of existing single-family neighborhoods, he felt Wiener’s bill went much too far.
City of Austin and the Homeless
The City of Austin Auditor has recently completed a series of audits to address the issue of homelessness. The four audits found:
· City Policies – November 2017 – The enforcement of certain city ordinances may create issues for people attempting to exit homelessness. Additionally, it noted that enforcement of these ordinances did not appear to be an effective or efficient way to connect people experiencing homelessness to the services they needed. Lastly, the report indicated that other U.S. cities faced lawsuits related to the enforcement of similar ordinances. The audit noted that, “in some of those cases, rulings against the cities were based on conditions that also appeared to exist in Austin.”
· Coordination – December 2017 – The report noted that while many City departments deal with homelessness in some way, the City had only recently started to coordinate its homelessness assistance efforts. It listed several U.S. cities which had created a position to coordinate homelessness assistance efforts in their area.
· Resource Allocation – May 2018 – The report found that the City did not have a complete understanding of the size or needs of the homeless population and it was unclear whether the City was effectively allocating resources for homelessness assistance. The report that the City was not meeting its goal for creating new units of Permanent Supportive Housing, which led to a greater need for short-term services.
· Outcomes – February 2019 – The report concluded that although homelessness remains a significant problem for the City, Austin has actively engaged in addressing the issue. However, the report noted that homelessness service providers frequently did not meet contract performance goals, which limited the City’s ability to assist the homeless population. The report also found that the City did not measure the long-term success of its homelessness assistance efforts and resources to prevent people from experiencing homelessness were not sufficient or effectively targeted to those most-at-risk. Lastly, that case management services could be improved in order to reduce inefficiencies and better connect people to services.
Against this backdrop of audits, the Austin City Council has recently undertaken specific actions:
· Homelessness was adopted as the highest priority for the budget.
In April 2019 the City Council approved an action plan which requests an additional $30 million annually to achieve a functional zero homelessness rate, meaning that the number of people experiencing homelessness never exceeds the number returning to housing.
The Council has also recently appropriated funds to support permanent supportive housing along with Central Health, the Episcopal Foundation, Travis County, and Seton Hospital. The program is a “Pay for Success” model where private investors will invest $15 million and reimbursed by the end payers once desired outcomes are achieved. The program aims to create 250 housing units serving 250-300 individuals.
The Mayor has promoted the idea of bringing about new funds for homelessness needs through the expansion of the Convention Center where the Hotel Industry will create a Tourism Public Improvement District (TPID) and levy a 2% room charge. The estimated proceeds of the TPID is $21 million annually with the Mayor proposing to share 40% of these proceeds or $8 million annually for homelessness needs. The Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing District is also expected to invest in homelessness estimated at $30 million.
· The City recently passed a $250 million bond program for Affordable Housing. The money would be fund $100 million for land acquisition for affordable housing development; $98 million into rental housing development; $28 million into a homeownership program and another $28 million into home repairs and rehabilitation.
· The City created a new position, A Homeless Strategy Officer to focus on homelessness across the City
· Amended three ordinances
o Camping in Public Areas Prohibited
o Solicitation Prohibited (now known as Aggressive Confrontation)
o Sitting or Lying Down Prohibited (now known as Obstruction
Generally, the previous ordinances prohibited the act of camping, sitting, or lying down in certain pubic areas. The amended ordinances which took effect on July 1, 2019 focus primarily on behaviors by continuing to prohibit aggressive conduct, behavior that unreasonably obstructs public property, and behavior that endangers public health or safety. However, the amended ordinances decriminalize a range of non-threatening or non-hazardous behavior so people experiencing homelessness many encounter fewer difficulties in finding permanent housing. Private property owners may still prohibit camping or sleeping by persons on their property, including outdoor common areas.
Austin Homelessness Facts
· 2,255 persons counted as experiencing homelessness in point-of-time (PIT) counts in 2019 up from 2,147 PIT in 2018.
· 2,255 persons consist of 1,086 unsheltered and 1,169 sheltered.
· The Unsheltered in Council districts consist of:
o District 1 – 55
o District 2 – 34
o District 3 – 177
o District 4 – 77
o District 5 – 53
o District 6 – 24
o District 7 – 118
o District 8 – 54
o District 9 – 439
o District 10 – 6
· One is six Austin residents’ lives in poverty. The rate is lower than San Antonio’s – nearly one in five – but higher than comparably sized San Francisco’s – close to one in eight.
· More than a third of Travis County households are cost-burdened, in that they spend more than 30 percent – the standard recommended by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – of their total income on housing.
· It is estimated that there are more than five evictions per day in Austin, a rate that is estimated to be conservative.
· There is limited shelter capacity with the Salvation Army having 300 beds of which there are beds for women and children and the ARCH has 190 beds for men only.
· Individuals experiencing homelessness may access housing services through the following:
o Through the ARCH or Salvation Army shelters which are connected to case-management services offered by area nonprofits
o For those experiencing homelessness less than a year, rapid rehousing is provided with a temporary housing subsidy
o For the chronically homeless – those with a disability who been living on the streets or in shelters for at least one year – permanent supportive housing is a national proven solution
· Community First Village is a 27- acre master planned community funded by private donations provides permanent supportive housing to 160 formerly chronically homeless individuals. Community First Village has its own micro-economy powered by residents who create art, service cars, cut hair and perform carpentry.
Who are the Homeless?
A study of five communities (Atlanta, Columbus, Dallas, San Francisco, Syracuse, and Pierce County Washington) by the Center for Social Innovation found significant racial disparities in rates of homelessness. Black residents accounted for nearly 65% of people experiencing homelessness in the five communities, even they accounted for 18% of the communities’ overall population. Nationwide black people account for 12% of the population, but 43% of the homeless population. The study also included an on-line survey of homeless service providers, which found that the service providers’ workforce is not represented of the community they serve. The major issue themes were: a lack of financial resources combined with fragile, impoverished social networks unable to provide support; high housing costs or dangerous or inhabitable housing forcing individuals into homelessness; criminal backgrounds making it difficult to find housing even with a voucher; mental health challenges; and family disintegration.
There are different types of homelessness. For example, there is temporary, episodic, and permanent homelessness. Temporary homelessness is exhibited through disasters (fire, floods, natural occurrences) or evictions. If an individual has a low income and are unable to afford rent in an ever-growing city, they may experience homelessness. Episodic homelessness is those who frequently go in and out of homelessness. These individuals frequently find themselves back on the streets. Eviction, mental illness, youth, and many others may experience this type of homelessness. Temporary homelessness can turn into episodic homelessness. Displacement is seen through the inability to hold a job, earn enough money to create a stable environment, and lack of assistance. Through many reasons and types of homelessness, there are individuals who experience it. Immigrants face an extreme amount of discrimination and persecution in their home nations and seek out the U.S. in hopes of fleeing those behaviors. Many times, when immigrants arrive in the U.S. they are continuously faced with discrimination and are forced into low skilled, low paying jobs. This creates a lack of stability or security in their new lives.
Displacement is experienced based on the fact that immigrants are living within a country that is not their home nation. Homeless immigration is a large example of displacement within the U.S. Currently in Los Angeles, it is estimated a large portion of the people experiencing homelessness are immigrants. Many immigrants experiencing homelessness are unwilling or unable to receive assistance due largely in part to fear stemming from the possibility of deportation. Displacement is then perpetuated due to the inability to find stable housing, income, or assistance. While the 2016 one-year estimates of sheltered homelessness found 12.8% were Latino and one-night estimates of sheltered and unsheltered homelessness found 22.1% of the overall homeless population to be Latino researchers speculate that such counts may be an underestimate. Recent immigrants may be more likely to double up or live in substandard housing, and undocumented people and families with members of “mixed-doc” status may avoid shelter and service out of fear.
The City of Austin based on previous audits of homelessness needs to focus on organizational change at the agency level. There is a sense given the public concerns aired in the social media that the City of Austin may have prematurely taken out of sequence the action steps to tackle the homelessness issue and not being ready to manage the potential impacts of changes to sit/lie ordinances. As the City Auditor noted in their audit reports that improvements should be the focus should be on coordinating homeless services; aligning resource allocations; and documenting outcomes. The necessary resources through the recent bond program, the Pay for Success Program, and others are not in place along with no policies in place to create significant increases in affordable housing. Moreover, the City has not put in place any substantial anti-displacement policies. Instead the Council decriminalized ordinances where are creating perceptions that the City is “inviting” more homeless and encouraging aggressive behaviors which has politicized the plight of the homeless.
From a policy perspective, the City needs to find solutions that are systemic, ambitious, and sustained. Such solutions require focused advocacy to shape political will and public support. They include strategies to:
· Implement an “anti-displacement” strategy that promotes the adopting “development with displacement” policies in order to manage neighborhood change. These affordable housing policies and strategies protect tenants and rental housing, stabilize and improve neighborhoods, promote community and resident ownership, leverage market activity, generate capital, expand affordable housing stock and preserve small businesses.
· implement Economic Opportunity that links residents to opportunities, create good jobs, improve transportation access, and build assets.
· Preserve and protect neighborhood assets, ensure equitable public investment, and expand equitable development opportunities.
· Implement health and place-based strategies to maximize health and healthcare investments in upstream factors that impact the determinants of equity and health.
Equitable Cities is a nonprofit firm focused on addressing the widening gap in income and equity that is undermining cities’ social fabric. Equitable Cities provides data, information, and advocacy to ensure that all city residents realize greater health, social stability, and a sustainable income. Equitable Cities will be providing deep dives into various city policies and strategies in the near future.
Homelessness needs to be addressed at a tactical and policy level. The City needs to consider homelessness in a much broader fashion with its relationship to displacement. There is the direct relationship between the reduced availability of low-cost housing and the increased number of homeless people. Job loss and economic difficulty is a high contributor to homelessness. With less low-income housing to go around, the relative price of the remaining units has risen dramatically and with it the percentage of people who must pay a disproportionate share of their income for housing costs. Overcrowded housing is directly related to the phenomenon of homelessness. The stresses produced by that arrangement, including tensions in relationships among the various people who are living together, often lead to displacement of individuals, families or both. These people may double up again, turn to the shelters, or find themselves on the streets. Broad-based economic trends have contributed to the growing numbers of homelessness. People in poverty has increased and the composition of poor people is changing with younger and individuals in female-headed families. The change in focus of the mental health system from inpatient to out-patient treatment has also impacted the problem. The shelter system was never intended to address either the large numbers of homeless people.