Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fort Worth seeks to reduce homelessness while Austin just wants to cover it up

Cities spend a lot of money because of homelessness, whether it's to lend a helping hand or to sweep the problem under the rug.

Two Texas cities - Fort Worth and Austin - are taking decidedly different approaches to the problem. In Fort Worth they're pursuing long-term strategies. Remarks J.R. Labbe at the Startlegram:

Fort Worth, which is "home" to about 80 percent of the county’s homeless population, has a realistic plan for dramatically decreasing the number of the chronically homeless within a decade.

"Directions Home" is not pie-in-the-sky. It’s not, as naysayers and folks with hearts the size of chickpeas continually complain in anonymous voicemail messages on my office phone every time I write about this topic, a waste of time, money and energy.

Major urban cities across the United States have demonstrated that it’s possible after they developed and adopted 10-year plans based on providing permanent supportive housing — a place to live that comes with the health and social services needed for people to regain their dignity and their purpose.

It also costs less than the way most communities approach the challenges — perpetuating lives of misery by giving "those people" free meals and clothing, but not the security and services necessary get off the streets permanently. This approach results in everyone paying the costs of expensive emergency response, medical bills and, too often, jail time.

Retail giant Walmart and the United Way are backing the Fort Worth project with charitable donations, but:

Now the ball bounces into the Fort Worth City Council’s court. On Tuesday, it begins the hard task of adopting a 2008-09 budget. Money’s tight this year, and the council has tough decisions ahead. But Moncrief left little doubt during Tuesday’s celebration of the plan’s adoption, which featured the nation’s homelessness czar Philip Mangano as the keynote speaker, that he intends to push his council colleagues to approve the $3 million earmarked for the first year of the 10-year plan.

In Austin, by contrast, which enjoys the stereotype if not always the reality of being a much more liberal city than Fort Worth, city leaders prefer to throw good money after bad pursuing short-term aesthetic goals instead of long-term economic ones. The Daily Texan reported:
The Downtown Area Command will use about $150,000 in overtime funds to employ 24 additional officers per week until the end of September as part of the new Downtown Quality of Life Enhancement Initiative, said APD Commander Chris Noble. ...

"[The initiative is] not about taking care of people; it's not protecting their rights," [Debbie Russell of the ACLU] said. "It's simply about cleaning up the streets and making downtown more valuable for incoming residents to move in and to drive up the prices so that everybody is priced out."

During the first three days of the initiative, Noble said there had been 80 arrests made up of misdemeanor citations and custody arrests. Among the arrests and citations were six for drug paraphernalia, one for public intoxication, five for sleeping in a public place and 14 for sitting on the sidewalk.
Austin may be a "liberal" town considering only a few hot button culture war questions, but when it comes to aiming the community's criminal justice machinery at harassing the least among us, no city in Texas has Austin beat. If you're homeless and are sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in a public place, after all, it could well be because you have no place else to sit or sleep. "Out of sight, out of mind" is the goal of Austin's policies, while Fort Worth actually seeks to improve the situation for the long-term, not just waste taxpayers' money on a short-term publicity stunt.

Especially considering a significant proportion of homeless people who routinely commit petty crimes are mentally ill, simply banishing the problem won't resolve it. Indeed, given federal disability protections the approach may even have straight-up civil rights implications. More important than liability, though, the strategy won't solve the problem. More arrests and tickets can't reduce homelessness, but actual homes can - particularly when coupled with help finding a job and case management to address chronic physical and mental health problems. That's why IMO Fort Worth's approach is more likely to succeed.

The Directions Home initiative in Fort Worth began with a $125,000 corporate donation. By contrast, the $150K for police overtime in Austin will be frittered away in a couple of months with nothing to show for it but an overcrowded jail full of petty misdemeanants. Not only that, the extra spending comes at a time when the city is cutting library services and raising garbage fees to pay for extra police raises. That makes little sense.

In Fort Worth they're making an investment in solutions, while Austin's policy prioritizes appearances over substance. But hey, at least Austin has the highest paid cops in the nation to go out and harass folks for sitting on the sidewalk - that's gotta count for something, right?


Anonymous said...

Austin is far from liberal. I laugh and direct people to your stats on Austin arrest rates (and now this) every time someone tells me it is.

Don Dickson said...

I often describe Travis County as the blue dot covering the genitals of red-state America.

It's blue, and it's plenty green, but 7:44 is right, in many ways it ain't all that "liberal" as we know it. As Kinky likes to say, we've got "gun-totin' liberals."

And as is well-chronicled here, Austin has this habit of criminalizing its social problems.

Anonymous said...

Imagine them other cities had Caritas homeless shelter right in the middle of the downtown rejuvination project. Its is easier to be charitible when to them people when you don't gotta smell them when you walk to lunch.

Anonymous said...

I guess you haven't seen the huge ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) that Austin built in the middle of downtown. That seems like a pretty significant investment.

Also, have you walked around downtown? The situation is out of control with all the aggressive begging and pissing in the streets.

I don't think this police action will be very useful but I also have no idea what to do to get rid of the problem otherwise.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 8:16 - I notice the latest $150K investment didn't go to the ARCH, it went to pay cops to harass people sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk. For that matter, if you don't think the police action is useful, then I'm not sure what is your complaint with this blog post.

The ARCH is a short-term band aid that doesn't remotely solve individuals' problem compared to investing in transitional housing. The Startlegram story actually chides "the way most communities approach the challenges — perpetuating lives of misery by giving 'those people' free meals and clothing, but not the security and services necessary get off the streets permanently." Fort Worth is taking a much more progressive, evidence-based approach.

Austin should address homelessness with housing and services, not telling people with no place to go, "go somewhere else" or locking them in jail. That's never worked before and it won't work now.

M1EK said...

It's crazy to think that you can continue to have a bum-infested downtown but have rising property values that pay the tax bills that fund the services that will help the homeless (the ones that want to be helped, anyways).

Me, I'd like some more harassing of the bums downtown, in other words, thanks very much.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To what end, M1EK - exactly what do you think that will accomplish?

Austin's been harassing the homeless for years trying to force them from downtown. Go there today to see how successful is that approach. It just doesn't help.

Anonymous said...

Harassing the homeless absolutely does not help. The following might make the situation more appealing to less-liberal minded folks: have you stopped to consider how many of your tax dollars go to supervise, feed, clothe, and provide medical care (especially the latter) to transients while they are in jail? This population cycles in and out of jail amazingly fast and very, very often. Some stay for extended periods of time because there is nowhere to release them to and others because of extreme mental illness. Think of all of that money (and it is considerable) being applied to long-term and humane solutions. Arresting the homeless is only a quick and temporary fix that doesn't actually "fix" anything at all.

M1EK said...

Only by a very absurd definition of the term could one say that Austin police 'harass' the homeless. For the most part, they ignore them.

And again, where's the money going to come from to pay for the services that help the homeless if you succeed in making downtown a bum-friendly zone? You don't think that has any impact on tax revenues?

M1EK said...

As for what kind of "more hassling" I'd like to see - one obvious example from years ago: went to see a show, parked on Red River, was given the typical shake-down by a bum (give me $5 and I'll see nothing happens to your car) WITHIN EARSHOT OF A COP, and nothing happens.

That's just one example. And with me you're dealing with a guy who is already predisposed to put up with a lot more to hang around downtown than the typical suburbanite will.

Anonymous said...

Most of these people are homeless because they are insane.

Trying to "help" a crazy by the same methods that you help a normal human that is simply down on their luck is a waste of time and money.

The really need to be sent to some sort of institution... I'm thinking of something somewhere between a nursing home and a summer camp. Just keep them comfortable and happy and try not to get them too stirred up.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

M1EK, you write, "Only by a very absurd definition of the term could one say that Austin police 'harass' the homeless."

I call BS. In the first three days of this program 19 of 80 arrests were for sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in public. That's harassment.

As for your years-ago anecdote about the cop hearing the request for $5, I wish I knew what you thought the officer should have done. Perhaps nothing happened because nothing should have? The officer is not your mother; you should have the capability of telling the bum "no" without somebody with a gun holding your hand.

M1EK said...

grits, when a homeless guy is extorting money in an obvious protection racket, I expect the cop to go break it up. Pure and simple.

There's nothing noble about being a bum. But even if you thought there was, I'd think you'd recognize the poor long-term prospects for city services that would be caused by coddling these people and driving all the good money out of the city.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

M1EK - You just don't get it. Arresting people for sitting on the sidewalk had been done and done. It won't reduce the number of homeless downtown and it's ridiculous for you to claim it will, except for the period of time the taxpayers are paying their freight in jail. If that worked the problem would have been solved a long time ago. It hasn't. You've offered no reason to think it would now.

As for your years-ago (actually irrelevant) example, you say the cop should have intervened to "break it up". But what does that mean? Arrest him? For what? For that matter, when you came back, was your car damaged? If not, you were just being paranoid, misinterpreting the fellow's intent. In that case, the cop was right to ignore you and the homeless man who asked you for money. Like I said, he's not your momma.

M1EK said...

Grits - YOU just don't get it. By the standards of cities that have actually solved the nuisance problems in their downtowns, Austin has never come remotely close to policing bad behavior by homeless people. You are looking back at a period when they enforced the law more than they do now and assuming that because that didn't 'work', it never does; whereas by any reasonable objective standard, that was just a small uptick - they never really tried to get serious with the hard-core bums downtown.

Anonymous said...

As far as the 5 dollar story, I always found putting my hand on the handle of my legally carried 357, and stating that if anything happened to my car, then something would happen to them typically allowed for an unmolested evening.

For someone to say that it is OK for the police to harass one group over another shows that people are all for Fascist tactics, as long as it doesn't touch their pathetic lives. This is the same as a cop stopping a black man or woman because they are driving in a highly affluent white neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

I agree that criminalizing homelessness is absurd; it simply makes it that much harder to escape the cycle of homelessness. Homeless and can't find a job? Get a criminal record for sitting on a bench too long, or for sleeping in a park because you have no place else to go. Then try getting a job, or a place to live with that criminal record. You won't pass the reference check.

Homeless people already have 3 strikes against them when they try to get jobs --- it is hard to keep clean, they frequently do not have a phone, and may not have transportation. So sure, kick them while they're already down with a ticket that carries a fine they can't pay, so they are forced to be free labor (community service) and now have a criminal record. That's a big help in the goal of getting people off the street.

The issue of whether or not Austin is liberal is a useless red herring. For both liberals and conservatives, the problem of homelessness in America should be a very important issue.

In Austin as in many cities, there is a seeminly endless struggle between those who want to deal with the root causes of homelessness and those who simply want to be sure "nice people" don't have to see it.

Austin DOES have a long-term plan for ending chronic homelessness, under the auspices of the ECHO Coalition. See information about ECHO at http://www.caction.org/homeless/plan.htm.

Places like ARCH have a place in a long-term plan for the homeless. Otherwise, what do you suggest we do while the long-term plan comes to fruition? Let people starve and freeze to death? Services to meet today's need are quite important, too.

Why not spend less time being condescending about what city is more liberal or conservative, or which has a better plan, and spend more time on doing things that support an end to chronic homelessness? Get educated about the issue. Start volunteering, or advocating, or simply talking with homeless people to realize that just like us, they have a story of who they were, who they are now, and who they'd like to be in the future. Because there but for the grace of God and a family that can help you in troubled times go you.

www.caceres-3d.com said...

This will not work as a matter of fact, that is what I believe.