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Searching for Balance

Navigating between public safety and social service delivery concerns can be challenging. Public safety and criminal justice officials must address public safety concerns and intervene to stop criminal activity. Social service providers solve for the underlying problems and help unsheltered individuals regain housing, obtain employment, or access needed treatment and services. These service providers witness how “when we severely punish people for minor drug possession or for assault charges related to mental health decompensation, or when we fail to adequately assist people leaving jails or prisons to obtain housing, services, and employment, we contribute to and worsen the problem of homelessness” Source: U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

As the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness writes in its report Ending Homelessness for People Living in Encampments: Advancing the Dialogue:

“Fundamentally, the solution is not prioritizing one perspective over another; the focus on the goal of ending homelessness requires that communities implement strategies that will link all people experiencing homelessness to permanent housing opportunities.”

Austin’s Homelessness Outreach Street team is one more link in a broader strategy for Austin. The team represents the spirit of the 2012 USICH Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness report:

“…success turns on a willingness to consider multiple perspectives and balance competing needs, openness to new partnerships and new approaches, and a readiness to commit and pool resources to fund solutions.”

“By taking into account multiple viewpoints and gaining the benefit of new ideas and perspectives, several communities have implemented solutions that both help people who are homeless and address the concerns of the broader community. Some of these solutions involve partnerships among sectors that have not previously worked together, some involve new programs and services funded all or in part by businesses and community associations, and some involve the donation of volunteer time and expertise by members of the community as leaders of coalitions or providers of needed skills or services. All involve communitywide collaboration, openness to innovation, and a commitment to real solutions to underlying problems rather than to short-term fixes.”

Design of Austin’s Approach

The Homelessness Outreach Street team was designed to be a multidisciplinary team, bringing together the expertise of police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic, and outreach social workers. Each member of the team has access to the full resources of their home agency. The team includes the capability to conduct Coordinated Assessment for willing clients.

The Austin Police Department (APD), Austin-Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC), Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and Downtown Austin Alliance started working as HOST on June 1, and have progressed through the project in an iterative fashion. Each Thursday, the team reviews what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what’s promising. Every Friday morning, the team meets with a support network of service providers to review lessons from the week, and set the focus for the upcoming week.