What To Do About the Homelessness Problem in Austin...

There’s a growing homelessness problem in a city facing an affordability crisis. In this article I will focus on Austin, Texas since it’s my hometown but it’s prevalent across the country in major cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Austin is currently the fastest growing city in the United States. A forecast of population growth shows that the metropolitan area may hit 3.2 million by 2030. In 2017, the homelessness rate in Texas rose by 7.5 percent, compared to 10.3 percent in Arizona, and 14.2 percent in Massachusetts. On a single night in January, roughly 553,000 people in the United States experienced homelessness, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. You don’t have to go very far outside your door to see the striking evidence. There’s homeless tent camps under bridges, people passed out on the sidewalks downtown, and panhandlers begging for spare change on median strips. It’s a serious problem, and also an eye sore for a city crushing under the pressure of rapid growth. The ARCH downtown serves as the first point of entry for adults experiencing homelessness. You will often find ambulances and police cars outside the premises. The city has discussed relocating the homeless shelter to a less public area but for now it remains downtown.

The City of Austin recently passed an ordinance that allows camping and panhandling in public areas. According to KUT, “camping will generally be permitted in outdoor areas that are accessible to the public, including parking lots, alleyways, and sidewalks.” Officers are required to give a warning before issuing a ticket. Back in late 2017, I didn’t have a stable place to live and relying on the generosity of a few close friends in Austin. I was a “vehicle dweller” for a few weeks which means I was technically homeless and living out of my car. One night I was camping under a tree in a public area across the street from Zilker Park. Late at night I heard a car door slam and bright lights shining into my tent. The police were right outside and shouting, “Is anyone in there?” I was busted and issued a ticket for “Camping in a Public Park”. Upon my arrival back in Austin after backpacking through South America for almost 2 years, I finally paid a visit to the Municipal Courthouse to appear in front of a prosecutor and with any luck dismiss the case. I just wanted to share this personal story to show that I can empathize with the plight the homeless population is facing. It’s critical for the future of our city that we come together as a community in solidarity to help those in need overcome their situation and get the necessary mental health and drug recovery assistance. Many of these people are war veterans suffering from PTSD, schizophrenia, or bipolar syndrome. These are all mental health issues that have clinical, therapeutic, and pharmaceutical treatments. More than anything else, I believe they need love, support, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and someone to listen to their problems.

 1. Invest In Low-Income Housing

We need more affordable housing options in Austin! Finding a home is a critical first step. The TSAHC offers training and support programs for first-time homebuyers and low-income families to connect them with lenders. Rather than building new high-rise condos as more family-own businesses close their doors unable to compete with the changing zone laws and increasing land value; we should focus on building sustainable low-income housing for the underprivileged classes of our community. Permanent supportive housing is a proven solution that pairs low-income housing with voluntary support services to address the needs of chronically homeless people. Investments in this type of housing has helped to increase housing stability and improve health and decrease the homeless population by 26% since 2017. We’re making good progress on this front but we can do even better. There’s a long list of income-restricted housing on the Austin Government website. The rent prices are soaring sky high as more companies bring jobs to the area and people continue to flock to this beautiful city from all over the country. The median home price in Austin is $361,900. The average rental price for a studio apartment is $1017 in Austin, compared to $738 in the state of Texas and $821 in the United States. I’m unable to rent another apartment in Austin. Long story short, I was renting out an extra room on Airbnb and was asked to leave when the manager caught wind of my “short-term housing activity” and breaking their strict leasing contract. I was charged an extra month of rent. I still owe the apartment complex over $4,000 which was instantly reported to a collection agency. I’ve hired a reputable credit repair firm to remove this bogus charge from my credit history. After my return to Austin in May 2019, I was helping my landlord in exchange for free accommodation at a beautiful house on East Riverside, volunteering at a hostel called HK Austin on East Cesar Chavez for nearly 2 months, and staying with a generous friend at his apartment in South Austin. Right now I’m typing this blog post from my home office on a hot summer day at an Airbnb rental property in Round Rock, about 40 minutes outside town. To quote The Beatles, I get by a little help with a little help from my friends. However, not everyone is so fortunate to have a supportive network of generous friends and family. My heart goes out to the homeless people who are struggling to survive in the scorching Texas heat.

2. Income Support Programs

Programs designed to assist low-income people are critical to supporting housing stability. Low-income households are typically unemployed or underemployed due to a number of factors, such as challenging labor market, limited education, a gap in work history, a criminal record, unreliable transportation or unstable housing, poor health or a disability. Too little income combined with the dwindling availability of low-income housing leaves many people at risk of becoming homeless. When work is not an option, many of these people may qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Often, people facing chronic homelessness find these programs to be inaccessible and insufficient to achieve stability. We need to create more such income support programs to aid in relief for the homeless population.

3. Volunteer at a Local Organization

You can volunteer your time and effort to give back to the community at a local non-profit organization. Actions speak louder than words. Here’s a short list of volunteer organizations in the Austin area. A full comprehensive list can be found here.

4. Build a more modern homeless shelter.

The current one downtown isn’t achieving it’s original objective to keep people off the streets. All you have to do is walk down 7th street near Capital Factory and popular bars on Red River to immediately observe all the people lying around on the sidewalks. It’s quite disturbing since many of the people are clearly drugged out, talking to thin air, and hallucinating. The whole area usually smells of vomit, sickness, and piss. One night I was recording a short video of the mess during a leisurely walk to Mohawk and a woman loudly reprimanded me, “Don’t record me, you fucking asshole!” Granted, it wasn’t the smartest decision to make a video without permission, but the fact remains, this homeless shelter should be relocated to a more protected area of the city. Mayor Steve Adler has pledged the new 100-bed emergency homeless shelter in South Austin will not have a "drop-in" environment where people linger in front as they do at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. You can listen to the full interview at Austin Mayor Steve Adler Wants More Action on Homelessness: ‘The Status Quo Is Killing Us’.

5. Blockchain Technology… WTF?

The city plans to explore how blockchain technology can help catalog identification documents to more easily access medical care and other vital services. This seems like a band-aid solution and i’s not entirely clear to me how it will help the homeless population in any discernible way, and I’m suspicious it’s a clever tactic for another company to profit at their expense, but the potential solution is certainly fitting with the innovative culture of Silicon Hills and I applaud their efforts. The City of Austin received a grant on Wednesday, July 31st to test a digital identity platform aimed at preventing homelessness, spearheaded by the Chief Innovation Officer Kerry O’Connor. Austin is among 35 “Champion Cities” to receive a $100,000 grant to build a pilot they deem important to their population. The grand prize winner of the competition will be awarded $5 million in October, with four additional cities earning another $1 million each to further develop and implement a sustainable, scalable solution.

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy day to read this article about a serious problem facing our vibrant community of artists, photographers (I’m one of them!), digital marketers, educators, and entrepreneurs. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of all the potential solutions out there, but I’ve been thinking about this topic for awhile and wanted to offer my contribution because I want to see this amazing city continue to succeed while firing on all cylinders! I truly believe Austin is one of the most innovative and creative cities in the United States. I’m confident that if we all put our heads together we will devise a brilliant multi-pronged solution to combat the growing homelessness problem, clean up the streets, and get these human beings the help they desperately need. If we can’t do it, no one can. Austin is a microcosm for the world at large. Our society will fall apart at the seams if we continue to give tax cuts to the rich while neglecting the underrepresented people. Amazon will pay $0 in federal taxes this year - and it’s partially thanks to Trump. To lighten up the mood a little bit, enjoy this humorous and alarmingly real stand-up comedy bit on homelessness by George Carlin. He was light years ahead of his time! Give the homeless their own damn magazine!