Homelessness is an issue that nearly everyone in Austin is familiar with. It’s hard to miss the people standing at intersections with their cardboard signs asking for money. Front Steps’ Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) shelter at the corner of 7th Street and Neches Street is as much a staple of downtown Austin as The Driskill Hotel or the Alamo Drafthouse. And many people probably get used to walking past members of the homeless community without really thinking about how those people ended up there or doubtful that it would ever happen to them.
According to ECHO, an organization that aims to end homelessness, the homeless population in Austin has risen 20 percent in the last year, after being on the decline for five years prior. On any given day in 2015 or 2016, there are approximately 2,100 people in Austin who could be classified as homeless. In 2015 there were 7,054 individuals total who were homeless or sought resources for the homeless.
The truth is, many people may be much closer to homelessness than they think. According to ECHO, Austin is experiencing rapid population growth, which has led to rising housing costs and more demand for rental units. This has created more competition, especially for those experiencing homelessness who may already have additional barriers to finding affordable housing like criminal records, a history of substance use, poor employment or poor credit. In addition to the rising housing costs, wages for low-income workers in Austin has remained relatively stagnant. For many people, it may only take one unforeseen financial crisis–like a medical emergency or a car accident–which, coupled with a weak social support system, can push them over the edge into homelessness.
“Our biggest challenge in Austin is affordable housing,” Front Steps’ Communications and Development Director Kay Klotz said. “We have incredible case managers who work very hard to help clients overcome all of their barriers to housing, only to find there are no available housing units to rent in the City of Austin. With a 99 percent occupancy rate in the city, our case managers have to work diligently with property managers to house the clients we serve. [There are other] big challenges for us, but getting housing for someone eliminates their biggest challenge.”
The population served by safety net providers may be different than what most people expect. For their emergency night sleep program, which provides beds to homeless men, the highest proportion of users each night are veterans (17 percent). Mentally ill and disabled persons make up 13 percent each, with the rest of the population made up of people suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, domestic abuse, HIV/AIDS or another disability. And while ARCH can currently only provide beds to men each night, the homeless population is very diverse nationwide. Families make up half of the people being housed in shelters each night, and a third of the homeless population are teens and young people under the age of 24.
Humanitarian causes such as homelessness are usually on the minds of more people around the holidays. As Klotz comments, there are many things members of the community can do to get involved and make a difference:
“Front Steps doesn’t have storage space for clothing even though our clients need them. This is where we collaborate with others. The Clothing Closet will come by to take folks to get clothing from a space we rent in a local downtown church. We rely on volunteers from companies and church groups to come in to serve dinner. People experiencing homelessness need bus passes to go to job interviews or doctor’s appointments. And dollar donations are still the best investment in ending homelessness. We can pay for another case manager who can help 10 more people get into housing in the next few months, or we can pay the rent for another formerly homeless person who is too disabled or old to be able to work, or we can pay for a bed in a nursing home for someone who is too sick to return to the streets after a serious illness. Every person housed saves the community thousands of dollars each month.”
While the homeless situation can be daunting, there are occasional bright spots. “My most satisfying moment working for Front Steps is being able to say good bye to someone who is moving out of the shelter into safe and stable housing,” Klotz shared.
For more information on Front Steps, please visit frontsteps.org.