Design, Technology, and Innovation Projects


The Homelessness Outreach Street Team (HOST) represents a new collaborative initiative in Austin’s Central Business District to address proactively the needs of people living on the streets. HOST brings together the expertise of police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic, and outreach social workers. This multidisciplinary team will help bridge the gaps between social services and public safety where hard-to-reach populations get stuck in the revolving door of emergency shelters, justice systems, and emergency services.

Modeled after similar successful homeless outreach programs in other cities across the U.S., HOST will proactively deploy on the streets. The Austin Police Department (APD), Austin-Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC), Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and Downtown Austin Alliance are sponsoring HOST within existing resources to test the effectiveness of the approach.

The original test project ran from June 1 through September 30, 2016 within boundaries of the Colorado River, Lamar Blvd., 29th Street, and IH-35. At the end of September 2016, Austin City Council allocated funds to extend the initiative for an additional year of testing. During this time, team members patrol the test area daily to interact frequently with people living on the streets. They work to build trust, provide immediate aid when possible, and motivate and connect people with local service providers as quickly as possible. HOST will connect with Front Steps, Salvation Army, Caritas of Austin, Trinity Center and others who provide clients with essential emergency/social services, and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) who provides permanent supportive housing through its local housing network.

Inter-agency and private sectors partners will gather experience and evidence during the pilot to inform and advise officials on whether to sustain the program long-term, and funding requirements to bolster-up critical gaps in the social service network in the FY-17 City and County budgets.


On April 8, 2015, Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) met with City Manager Marc Ott to discuss the safety concerns of the downtown area around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). APD data showed that police were responding to calls around ARCH an average of 21 times per day, and that EMS was responding to calls around ARCH an average of 7 times per day. Data also showed dramatic increases in assaults around ARCH since 2010. DAA wants to ensure that the area around ARCH is safe for people in need of services, as well as for service-provider employees and other downtown users. The City Manager’s Office asked the Innovation Office to use their innovation methodologies to help better understand and address the concerns related to safety and crowding around the ARCH.

In early conversations with community partners – the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services, the Austin Police Department, and the Downtown Austin Alliance, everyone expressed a desire for new strategies and ideas that would create sustainable change. The Innovation Office reached out to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) and Front Steps, the service provider for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, to gain a better understanding of their perspectives and the methods they already employ to serve the homelessness services community. Everyone agreed that we needed to have a better understanding of the reasons behind the rise of crime and how to better collaboratively and sustainably solve for this trend by shoring up gaps and needs in facilitating pathways to housing, preventing crisis and crime, and improving community health and safety.

ECHO reported that in 2015, through ECHO Coordinated assessment process, case management teams conducted 5,000 client assessments at the ARCH, Caritas, Salvation Army, and over the phone. These assessments gathered a broad spectrum of data on clients, such as employment status, age, health care access, location, substance use and other well-being and vulnerability indicators of individuals and families experiencing homelessness. After engaging in Coordinated Assessment, these individuals often work with case managers at provider agencies who use this information to match clients with available housing and other needed services. Although these efforts are successful, there are still challenges, including identifying and encouraging individuals on the street to engage in the Coordinated Assessment process and available social services.

The Innovation Office believed that implementing innovation tools of ethnography, design, prototyping, and iteration would complement Coordinated Assessment and other existing activities. They believed these tools could help identify and test possible changes in interactions, services, and possibly programs in order to create more sustainable, positive outcomes for the community, especially in addressing the intersection of safety and homelessness. Meanwhile, the Austin Police Department had been studying the homeless outreach team approaches of other city Police Departments, such as the Cities of Houston, San Antonio, and Denver.

In February 2016, staff from the City of Austin Innovation Office, the Downtown Austin Alliance, Austin Police Department, Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, and Front Steps visited a social innovation lab in Toronto, to look at an approach of transformation that uses embedded collaboration, ethnography, design, prototyping, and iteration. Upon return from the trip, the team co-authored their lessons learned. After de-briefing City management on March 10, planning began on how to replicate the homeless outreach team initiatives and how to incorporate new, innovative methods of design, prototyping and iteration.

National movement to decriminalize homelessness

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) has found that nationally, “the number of Americans caught in a revolving door between the streets or shelters and jails may number in the tens of thousands. Of the 11 million people detained or incarcerated in jails every year, as many as 15 percent report having been homeless. Roughly 48,000 people entering shelters every year are coming nearly directly from prisons or jails.

On August 6, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement of interest arguing that criminalizing people who are homeless for being homeless is unconstitutional. As stated by the Justice Department in its filing, “[i]t should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.” (A statement of interest addresses the appropriate legal framework for analyzing a claim made in court, particularly where an area of law is unsettled.)

Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights. Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy. Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.”

- Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

How HOST Fits Into Broader Efforts to End Homelessness

Outreach, Engagement, and Intervention

To be drafted

Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) Strategic Efforts

To be incorporated

Downtown Austin Alliance Strategic Efforts

The Downtown Austin Alliance 5-year strategic plan includes the goal of providing leadership, advocacy and direct funding to reduce the number of chronically homeless downtown by 25% by 2017. This is one goal among others related to improving public safety and addressing homelessness and social services-related issues.

The current one-year milestones for that goal include supporting:

  • the development and implementation of a plan with the City’s Innovation Office and key stakeholders to improve safety around ARCH and more effectively move people into services, shelter and housing.
  • the City of Austin Neighborhood Housing & Community Development to issue an RFP by October 2016 to develop the city’s second, Housing First project with a minimum of 50-units. (This RFP was released in April. ATCIC’s Oak Springs 50-unit project is the first Housing First project in the city.)
  • approvals needed for development of Oak Springs Housing First project ground breaking by fall 2016.
  • approvals needed to begin phase II of Community First Village.