Austin's Homelessness Advisory Committee Gives a Voice to Homeless Individuals

July 31, 2019

It’s no secret that Austin has been trying to increase their effort towards helping homeless individuals get off the street and to a better place in their lives. Homelessness in Austin is an increasingly pressing issue, and in 2018 there were approximately 2,147 homeless people living in the city, and increase by more than 100 people from the year before.

Austin has been trying to address the homelessness issue in Austin for years with lackluster results, not for the lack of trying. The city is now shifting their focus away from managing the issue, and are focusing more on solving it, which is where the Austin Homelessness Advisory Group is showing to be an integral part to that effort.

So, what is the Austin Homelessness Advisory Committee, and what does it do to help positively impact homelessness in Austin?

A grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies was awarded to the city of Austin in 2017 to allow the city to create an innovation team to test new approaches to addressing the homelessness in Austin. This is where the Austin Homelessness Advisory Group was born.

According to the Centre for Public Impact, “the AHAC [Austin Homelessness Advisory Committee] is part of Austin’s efforts to improve coordination across the city to combat homelessness. It does so by getting individuals who have experienced homelessness to contribute to policymaking, give feedback on services and resources, and assist in the design of materials and outreach for the homeless.”

By looking to the people who actually experience homelessness every day, the city is able to more effectively make decisions that will positively impact the homeless community according to the feedback that they receive from them. The role of the Advisory Committee according to the Centre for Public Impact includes:

  • “Educate and inform policymakers on the realities of homelessness, including disability, mental health, substance use disorder and other issues faced by individuals who are homeless”
  • “Obtain feedback on current services and resources for persons experiencing homelessness”
  • “Better understand the realities of homelessness and to inform the improvement of services”
  • “To inform the design of materials and outreach for individuals experiencing homelessness.”

 Kerry O’Connor, Austin’s chief innovation officer, told Medium, “Until you understand the lived experience of people and can bring that qualitative information in, you’re always going to be flying with a skewed radar that’s sending you in a slightly off direction.”

Those experiences are collected from people like 63-year-old Donna Ware, who was a substitute teacher before she  lost her home in 2015 after a legal dispute and turned to living in a storage unit and her car.

According to Medium, Donna isn’t addicted to drugs or alcohol, and she’s not physically disabled nor does she have children, so her situation isn’t considered urgent on the list for subsidized housing.

According to Huffington Post, Donna joined the Austin Homelessness Advisory Committee upon its conception in 2017 after a referral from her PTSD counselor.

She told Huffington Post, “It’s been enlightening, encouraging and affirming…I have a voice, and not just for myself, but for the people.”

During meetings that took place in May and June of this year, the Advisory Committee had productive discussion regarding the access of affordable storage and how the lack-of impacts their ability to seek improvements for their lives. Huffington Post reports one committee member came back from a job interview to find all of his possessions stolen from where he had left them, and others shared experiences of back injuries and back pain from trying to haul heavy bags of all their personal items around the city.

According to Huffington Post, “the committee proposed storage facilities that would be centrally located along major bus lines, and would include lights and emergency call buttons, the use of heat-resistant building materials to counter the scorching Austin summers, mail slots, and an online locker reservation system.”

Mark Janchar, a user designer for the city of Austin told Huffington Post, “The feedback they provide is invaluable…we can’t see things with their eyes, and then as soon as they explain it to you it makes so much sense. It’s a great empathy-building tool. It creates this pathway for you to see homelessness in a personal, humanizing way.”

The Advisory Committee’s accessible storage ideas were later approved by the Downtown Austin Community Court Advisory Board, with a recommendation for funds to be allocated to the proposal.

However, the government and city appointed boards and groups move slowly, meaning even if the funds are approved for the storage spaces, it could be a long time before they exist to benefit the homeless community, which seems to be a trend that doesn’t surprise the individuals impacted.

Donna Ware has been on the Advisory Committee for two years, and results from the Advisory Committee’s work, plus the other efforts put forth by the city, are not coming to execution.

Additionally, Donna and many of the other Advisory Committee members continue to remain without secure, or even temporary, housing. According to Donna, as reported by Huffington Post, a committee member who had been homeless for many years did eventually receive housing from the city in the winter of 2018, but they passed away shortly after.

Donna told Huffington Post, “There are many homeless people who will die before something gets done…Things can be done. We’re not a poor city. I could it if we were in Detroit. But this is Austin. We’re one of the meccas, the new Silicon Valley – we ought to want to do something to end homelessness.”

However, despite the sometimes slow progress to help the homeless community in Austin, Donna Ware still believes having the Austin Homelessness Advisory Committee has a positive impact.

“Every city should do something like this, and maybe even do it bigger than what Austin is doing,” she told Medium, “It’s important to work directly with the homeless, and hear our stories, rather than just try to figure out what we may need. Without this committee, Austin really wouldn’t know the diversity that’s there in the homeless situation, and how the need really is to come up with solutions that help people.”


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