Where We've Been
Austin has recognized homelessness as an issue since the 1960s, when services were delivered exclusively through community and religious organizations. The 1980s saw a burst of research and policy around homelessness, prompting Congress to pass the first national legislative response to homelessness in 1987. Ever since then, Austin has been cycling through action plans and task forces to address the problem, passing the most recent plan in April of 2018. In the 1990s, Austin started passing ordinances that made sitting and lying, begging, and camping illegal, which worsened the “us vs. them” mentality that already existed.
Since that time, Austin has devoted more attention to homelessness through the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), opened in 2004, and The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which has been operating since 2009 as the lead agency in charge of coordinating the city’s efforts to address homelessness. Although homeless advocates have been vocal against ordinances and active in policy making, so far none of Austin’s plans to address homelessness have proven to be sustainable.
The City of Austin’s enduring character is one of innovation and vibrancy, and the people who reside here all contribute to its living personality. However, there is a subpopulation of Austin that calls this city home, but who are not housed. To understand homelessness in Austin as it exists today, it is important to know how we got here. Our goal is to contextualize our research and journey with local history - especially in regards to community and political responses to homelessness.
History and Homelessness
The question of “How do we fight homelessness in our community?” is not new – we have had this conversation many times before. And even though there have been broad strides in research and policy in the past few decades, the fact that we are still having these conversations demonstrates the lack of consistent and sustained effort in taking responsibility for this issue locally.
Historians and other researchers have written numerous books on this topic, so this section will be brief and condensed in nature, mostly looking at a handful of key events within the history of homelessness in Austin. We will take a look at the early history of homelessness, the boom in research and policy during the 1980s, and the decades following that period in which the nation and our community attempt to develop solutions for this issue and the various pathways they take to achieve their goals. Additionally, identifying the gaps in research and policy may provide opportunities to show a growth of compassion, understanding, and sustainable change for those persons experiencing homelessness in Austin.
The history of American homelessness can be separated into different eras, all with their unique set of causes and societal responses to homelessness. However, every era demonstrates a nation’s struggle to support one of its most vulnerable populations. The history of American homelessness spans back almost 400 years and persists to this day, and alongside this history, the perception of homelessness has slowly evolved from viewing those experiencing it as “deviants” to viewing them as humans continuously failed by economic and social institutions (see more discussions on this topic in What Causes Homelessness).
In 1966, the Community Council of Austin and Travis County (CCA) published and distributed an informational packet with the title “Services to Transients and Non-Settled People in Austin and Travis County.” This packet listed and described various agencies and resources available for “transients” and “non-residents,” meaning people experiencing homelessness. This packet was developed in response to Caritas requesting admission to Austin’s United Fund organization, which is now called the United Way (United Way website). The Council was required to demonstrate whether Caritas provided the necessary services to qualify for admission, and during their investigation they determined that the already-existing agencies in Austin and Travis County seemed quite capable of handling “the number of transient requests they [received] each year” (CCA, 1966, p. 9). This meant that the Council did not deem Caritas’ admission to the United Fund as absolutely necessary, believing they would simply duplicate services that were already sufficiently provided for by agencies like The Salvation Army and Operation Brotherhood. They even called Caritas “in effect a referral agency” (CCA, 1966, p. 9). In addition to this decision, the Council also recommended that the city should strive to give new services to transients in the future, such as “casework and rehabilitation services” for those they thought it could help (CCA, 1966, p. 10).
Finding additional local resources that directly referenced homelessness before the 1980s proved difficult. While the CCA’s informational packet was a useful and rather thorough resource for “transients,” it was not a governmental policy specifically meant to better the lives of those people experiencing homelessness. This is not unsurprising as it would be almost another 20 years before this issue reached the national and local governments’ list of priorities. And even now, a mixture of political hesitation and a negative societal perception of homelessness has ultimately prevented sustainable change.
The 1980s saw an unprecedented increase in government interest and research regarding the issue of homelessness across the United States. Prior to the 1980s, homelessness in America was not widely addressed through policy; instead, local organizations like Caritas and The Salvation Army, as well as religious institutions, implemented outreach and support programs for people in their communities experiencing homelessness. During this initial intensification in interest, the studies and political discussion surrounding the topic was largely biased because of two widely and strongly held ideological beliefs: 1) People who live on the streets are there because they want to be and because they do not want or accept help, and 2) A large proportion of people experiencing homelessness are mentally ill and are in their position because of the deinstitutionalization movement which began in the 1960s (Jones, 2015, p. 167).
Locally, Austin experienced a shift in public, academic, and governmental reactions regarding the city’s own growing homeless population. Despite the increase in interest, however, the city’s actions and responses to homelessness appear intermittent and unsustained across the historical record, therefore resulting in new efforts developing every 5 to 10 years, starting in the early 1980s. These efforts included various studies and policies aimed at identifying the needs of people experiencing homelessness and the ways our local community could provide or solve for them.
The most influential study on homelessness in Austin during the 1980s was Dr. Donald Baumann’s psychological study (1985) for the local Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. In his final report, “The Austin Homeless," Baumann accurately claimed that his study was “the first empirical investigation in Texas to comprehensively explore the characteristics and needs of the homeless, particularly their mental health needs” (Baumann, 1985, p. 7). A major portion of his study focused on “deinstitutionalized persons,” or those people released from “mental hospitals” in Texas as a result of the previously mentioned deinstitutionalization movement (Baumann, 1985, p. 6). Dr. Baumann would go on and serve as an academic consult to the Austin’s first task force for homelessness and would even help formulate their final report and recommendations.
In 1985, the Austin City Council formed the Mayor’s “Task Force on the Homeless” in response to The Salvation Army’s request for a new shelter location. After the task force conducted their initial research and recommended that the new shelter be located at Neches and 8th Street, where it remains to this day, they formed a secondary goal of developing “a program that would simultaneously help the homeless and the community” (Wynne, 1986). The program they ultimately embraced was titled Austin’s Five-Step Plan to Fight Homelessness (Task Force Brochure, 1985), which was officially adopted in July of 1986 by Mayor Frank Cooksey; the Interim Planning Board for the Homeless began implementing the steps in mid-1987. Within each step, the task force recommended plans for improvement throughout the city and additionally provided information for the public in regards to how they could help with the issue.
The Five-Step Plan did not continue past the end of the 1980s. Every 5 to 10 years following the end of this inaugural plan, the City of Austin would go on to develop a new rendition of a plan to “fight homelessness.” It has been over 30 years since the Five-Step Plan, and a new “action plan” was just approved by the Austin City Council in the summer of 2018. Why haven’t any of these plans been sustainable, and how is the newest plan different from the first plan written in 1985? The answer lies in both the constantly evolving understanding of homelessness in Austin and in the ways our city is willing to solve for the issue.
The 1990s and Early 2000s
Following the surge of research studies about homelessness and active discourse throughout the 1980s, the next 20 years of American (and Austinite) responses to this issue saw the conversation start to shift away from detached, authoritative viewpoints toward more nuanced analyses. These new conversations also began to include the stories and voices of people who had real, lived experiences of homelessness. As with any social rights issue, however, controversy was not absent.
In the summer of 1996, Austin City Council formed another Homeless Task Force with the Community Action Network (CAN), consisting of members from the business community, homeless advocates, and local government officials. Their goal, like the goal of the 1985 Task Force, was to develop a comprehensive plan addressing homelessness in Austin and Travis County.⁴ This plan included an idea for a “homeless campus,” where people could receive comprehensive services (Duff, 1996). However, one Austin Chronicle journalist believed this campus to be “a place to take the ‘homeless by choice’ out of downtown and into a heated concrete pavilion in an area where tourists and taxpayers never have to venture” (Duff, 1996). With the no-camping ordinance and this kind of separatist suggestion within a “comprehensive plan” regarding homelessness in Austin, 1996 saw tensions rise between the “homeless community” and the “general community.” But as individuals experiencing homelessness pushed back against these kinds of stigmatizing policies, their own voices began to finally influence the way the discussion was framed.
As the voices of individuals with lived experience were encouraged to speak, a crucial medium for spreading their stories emerged in Austin at the end of 1999: the street newspaper. The first of these was The Austin Homeless Advocate: Voice of the Streets, a bi-monthly newspaper consisting of short stories, topical articles, artwork, and even poetry, all written by local contributors experiencing homelessness. After Voice of the Streets ceased production in the mid-2000s, active homelessness advocate Val Romness helped reintroduce this vehicle of creativity and self-expression in the form of The Challenger Street Newspaper, which has been in production since 2011. People with experiences in homelessness, as well as homeless allies, contribute to this periodical – and they are also the distributors. Those who distribute the papers offer them for a suggested donation of $2, and because The Challenger qualifies as a not-for-profit, this system is not considered “panhandling and you can offer it just about anywhere” (The Challenger, April 2011). Furthermore, the distributors are able to keep every donation they receive in exchange for the newspapers.
There is not a copy of the 2004 “Plan to End Chronic Homelessness” online, but the Austin History Center does have the full hard copy report in their archives.
In 2004, CAN’s Homeless Task Force, with assistance from the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department (HHSD) and JP Results Consulting, developed a 10- year plan: “Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Austin/Travis County.” Unlike previous proposals, CAN’s newest plan sought to outline and address the issues of Austin residents primarily suffering from chronic homelessness, or “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, OR has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years” (RCA, 2004). The 2004 plan consisted of four steps for addressing chronic homelessness, including a focus on improving the discharge protocols for people exiting institutions, the development of better data, connecting people to better forms of employment and income, and designing Austin’s infrastructure “to address the systemic problems that lead to poverty and homelessness” in the first place (RCA, 2004). According to the plan, the most important ways to achieve these steps is to remove barriers “that prevent chronically individuals from obtaining housing, services, and public benefits and engaging [within] the community” (RCA, 2004).
From 1985 to 2004, members of the Austin community identified homelessness as an issue that needed attention and resources from policymakers in order to initiate change. This motivation for change led to three separate plans regarding homelessness, but yet homelessness still persists in Austin and Travis County. Within the last decade, there has been another reinvigoration in interest in ending homelessness in our community, and one local organization has moved to the forefront of the effort.
The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, referred to locally as the ARCH, has been managed by the organization Front Steps since opening its doors in 2004. Located at the intersection of 7th St. and Neches St., the ARCH acts “as the first point of entry into the homeless social service system” for many people experiencing homelessness in Austin. The i-team recently recommended facilities improvements for the ARCH to make the center a connection point for other resources in the community that address issues such as health care and joblessness.
In 2009, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) began work to accomplish its mission in developing and implementing “system, community-wide strategies to end homelessness in Austin and Travis County, Texas” (ECHO website, “Mission”). Officially recognized by HUD as the Continuum of Care (CoC) lead agency in Austin, ECHO coordinates its efforts with community partners like The Salvation Army, ARCH, and others to encourage both policymakers and members of the general Austin community to join together to ultimately end homelessness in our city and county. ECHO published their first official plan regarding homelessness in 2010 called "The Plan to End Community Homelessness in Austin/Travis County."
On April 26, 2018, the Austin City Council voted to approve “Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness,” written by ECHO with the help of community stakeholders. Interestingly similar to the “Five-Step Plan to Fight Homelessness” from 1985, ECHO’s newest plan has five key system components that need to be addressed in order to achieve the end of homelessness in Austin.
With this most recent plan from ECHO, we are reminded that homelessness is still a present and critical issue that is persisting in our community, even after three decades of plans and efforts to end homelessness in Austin and Travis County.
Image from ECHO's report, "Austin's Action Plan to End Homelessness," pg. 11.
While the City of Austin has made intermittent commitments to fighting homelessness within Travis County, as of yet there has been no long-term, maintained, nor sustainable effort or plan. More importantly, these historical attempts did not always address the context in which homelessness occurs or the many complex and intertwined factors that contribute to a person experiencing homelessness. In more recent years, however, there has been a reinvigoration both in research and in policymaking, a spark in interest that utilizes the lived experiences and voices of people who are currently experiencing homelessness or those who have a history of homelessness.
The i-team hopes to continue with this new trend in their own research and discovery process. If we present various forms of context surrounding the issue of homelessness, in addition to emphasizing the lived experience, we are able to better inform policymakers and stakeholders who wish to create and witness sustainable change in Austin and Travis County for everyone who calls this city home. And perhaps one day, homelessness could be a part of Austin’s history rather than a part of its present.
The Austin Branch of the American Association of University Women. HERstory of the Austin Branch: 1923 - present. Retrieved from https://austin-tx.aauw.net/about-us/our-history/.
Baumann, D.J., Cheryl Beauvais, Charles Grigsby, and F.D. Schultz, 1985. The Austin Homeless: Final Report Provided to the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. Austin: Austin History Center. A 362.58 BA.
The Challenger Street Newspaper. (2011 - Present).
Community Council of Austin and Travis County. (1966). Services to transients and non-settled people in Austin & Travis County. Austin: Ephemera found at the Austin History Center. A 362.8 SE.
de Marban, A. (1996). The grapes of Bruce: Bum deal for the homeless. The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/1996-01-12/530367.
Duff, A. (1996). This ain’t no KOA: Don’t let the tent flap hit you on your way out… The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/1996-02-16/530585/.
Dunbar, W. (2004). Naked city: No homeless in our time? The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2004-12-17/243203/.
Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). (2018). "Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness." Retrieved from http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=292841.
Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). (2016). "Youth Homelessness Needs Assessment: Austin/Travis County." Retrieved from http://austinecho.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/161123-youth-homelessness-needs-assessment.pdf.
Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). (2010). "The plan to end community homelessness in Austin - Travis County." Retrieved from http://www.austinecho.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Plan-To-End-Community-Homelessness-Full.pdf.
Jones, M.M. (2015). Creating a science of homelessness during the Reagan era. The Milbank Quarterly, vol. 93(1), March 2015, pp. 139-178. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24369873.
Request for Council Action (RCA) Program, City of Austin. (2004). Subject: Approve the “Plan to End Chronic Homelessness In Austin/Travis County” in response to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative. Retrieved from http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=3032.
Task Force on the Homeless (1985). "Austin’s five step plan to fight homelessness." Brochure written by the task force. Austin: Austin History Center. A 362.58 AU.
United Way for Greater Austin. (n.d.) Timeline: United for 90 years. Retrieved from http://www.unitedwayaustin.org/timeline/.
Wynne, A. (1986). "Final report: Task force on the homeless." Published July 1, 1986. Austin: Austin History Center. A 362.58 AUT754F.