Community First! Update
Our contributions to Community First! Village have now reached the $1 million mark. In 2017, our board approved a pledge to donate $2 million over ten years to support the nearly $120 million capital campaign to develop phases II, III and IV of Community First! Village. This includes the unique tiny home community developed by Mobile Loaves and Fishes for those formerly experiencing chronic homelessness. The grant was not only the largest in the history of the Downtown Austin Alliance, but also the largest (at the time) for Mobile Loaves & Fishes.
Halfway to fulfilling our $2 million pledge, we commend the impact Community First! is having on people’s lives and on addressing homelessness in downtown Austin.
“Addressing homelessness is a top priority of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and Community First! Village represents an innovative, private sector-driven approach that is proving to be a benefit for many people in our community,” Dewitt Peart, Downtown Austin Alliance president and CEO, said. “Community First! Village is providing permanent housing for more than 250 people who were experiencing chronic homelessness—one-third of whom were from downtown. They are serving those who were living unsheltered—in some cases, for years—and those in our community who have the greatest needs for housing and services.”
Mobile Loaves and Fishes began moving residents to the 27-acre phase I site in 2015, with a goal of housing 200 former chronically homeless individuals. In 2018, they began home construction and occupancy on phase II—an adjacent 24-acre site. Today, Mobile Loaves and Fishes has acquired two additional sites to develop phases III and IV. When completed, Community First! Village will house about 1,500 people who were experiencing homelessness for two or more years.
We recognize that Community First! is a crucial component in the set of solutions needed to effectively address unsheltered homelessness in Austin. Community First! Village’s dedication to serving those with the most acute needs was a compelling reason for our pledge of support, but it also has had a positive impact downtown. Currently, Community First! Village houses 83 residents who were referred by downtown social service agencies.
Downtown Unsheltered Homeless Numbers See Significant Decline
The number of people experiencing homelessness in downtown Austin has decreased by 55% between May 2021 and October 2021, according to our most recent monthly count. The count was conducted on October 20 and revealed an estimated 365 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness within the downtown Public Improvement District (PID) boundaries. This is a significant decrease from the May 2021 estimate of 813 people living unsheltered in the PID.
We believe the reduction in unsheltered homelessness is due to a number of initiatives, including the implementation of the City’s Homelessness Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) Initiative, as well as the reinstatement of the City’s camping-ban ordinance and the new statewide camping ban law that went into effect September 1.
In May 2021, the Downtown Austin Alliance began conducting monthly counts to benchmark and consistently track the number of people who are living unsheltered downtown. The benchmarking coincided with the community-wide goal established in April to house 3,000 additional people in three years, and the implementation of two new initiatives created in collaboration with local homeless-service partner agencies.
We count all unsheltered persons, tents or makeshift structures, and inhabited vehicles within the district. The count also includes the area around Lady Bird Lake. The counts occur between 3am-6am on the third Thursday of the month using 10 teams to survey predetermined sub-districts within the larger boundary. The count is limited to observation only. As a result, we use a nationally and locally verified multiplier for cars and makeshift shelters to produce an estimated number of individuals experiencing homelessness.
The Initiatives and Partnerships
In April 0f 2021, in partnership with Integral Care and the Downtown Austin Community Court, we launched the Homelessness Health and Wellness Center program which provides direct access to housing-focused behavioral healthcare for people experiencing homelessness downtown. The program, which leverages Community Court case management resources, Homelessness Outreach Street Team (HOST) and the Terrace at Oak Springs medical clinic as a service hub, has a goal to enroll 100 people by the end of 2021. On October 11, there were 70 people enrolled.
On October 1, we launched a partnership with Trinity Center to reunify people experiencing homelessness with their families through Trinity Center’s existing reunification program. We provide funding and have expanded the network to refer people wanting to be reunified with their families to Trinity Center. The goal is to reunify 100 people by April 30, 2022, which is double the average monthly referral number Trinity Center has reunified over the past two and a half years. As of the end of October, 11 people were reunited with their loved ones.
What Does it Mean?
Despite the significant decline in the estimated number of people living unsheltered downtown, we are cautiously optimistic. Many people that had been unsheltered downtown accepted temporary housing provided by the City’s HEAL initiative. But for others, shelter or housing may not have been readily available.
We continue to advocate for and fund programs and projects that increase housing, shelter and other essential services needed for people experiencing homelessness. Our work in this area includes: advancing the goals from the March-April Summit to Address Unsheltered Homelessness; providing capital funding for the expansion of Community First! Village, Terrace at Oak Springs and the Salvation Army’s Rathgeber Center; funding the Homelessness Health and Wellness Center and family reunification partnership programs; and providing full-time employment opportunities for people experiencing homelessness through its Downtown Ambassadors program.
As we continue to advocate for improved homelessness planning and policy, we are also actively leading and participating in local homelessness collaborative efforts and testing new initiatives. In addition to being a key participant in the Summit to Address Unsheltered Homelessness in Austin, we have actively implemented new partnerships this year to help address unsheltered homelessness downtown. We will continue to advocate for and fund programs that increase housing options and other essential services needed for people experiencing homelessness downtown.