Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Homes and services, not criminal prosecution, are the best (read: only) solution to homelessness. Keep the cops out of it!

We've all heard the refrain: Police are overworked because they've been asked to solve society's social problems.

So why do our police-union friends get so upset whenever government tries to handle those problems by other means?

The brouhaha over Austin's homeless-ordinance revisions - which eliminated the no-sit/no-lie ordinance and modified the panhandling ordinance to make it constitutional - really is much ado about nothing. In fact, it may even be cause for cautious optimism. At the same meeting, the Austin City Council also voted to create a new homeless shelter to provide expanded services, on top of voters approving housing bonds in 2018 to expand affordable housing options.

Giving tickets to homeless people who could never pay them wasn't solving any problems, so it's not like Austin eliminated tools that were working. All the law did was set people up to have an arrest warrant later, at which point county taxpayers would host them in the jail for a while. But that doesn't help anything, and in the long run, created additional problems.

Austin spent years ramping up punitive responses to homelessness that never worked. Maybe this won't either, but it's got a better chance than continuing with the failed status quo.

The question of "What works?" brings us to an excellent and timely Texas Tribune article by Juan Pablo Garnham, "Why homelessness is going down in Houston and up in Dallas." The short answer: An influx of funds, mainly from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to provide homes and services to homeless people. As a result, Houston has reduced its homeless population by 53 percent, according to an annual census, while the problem in Dallas is getting worse, surpassing H-Town in the latest count. What's their secret?
“If you have a homeless person and you put them in houses, and simultaneously give them social, behavioral and health support services, 92% of them will be stable in that facility,” [Houston Coalition for the Homeless executive director Mike] Nichols said. 
But there’s a hidden secret in Houston’s formula: coordination. 
The scenario from 20 years ago when different organizations would serve food, give clothes or offer shelter — all done separately — has changed. There’s now constant communication between these institutions and a digital database called the Homeless Management Information System (or HMIS) that allows people at several organizations to understand each case. 
Most cities today have HMIS in place, but Houston was quick to adopt it, and that helped organizations strategize, analyze, share information and find personalized solutions.
Giving homeless people tickets won't get them off the streets, but providing them homes, services, and opportunities to get back on their feet will. Austin has finally chosen to shift resources toward confronting homelessness with policies that at least have a chance at working instead of doubling down on ineffective, send-in-the-cops strategies.

Let's do mental health next.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Houston's homeless population has decreased despite the loss of housing stock from Harvey. Could some of the homeless have moved elsewhere? Not mentioned in the article is Houston's lack of zoning and other governmental restrictions on the construction of affordable housing that slow down projects in other cities. I have seen news stories that projects in San Francisco have been tied up by lawsuits citing environmental problems.