Policymakers, Designers, and Researchers
Scroll down this page to find information about:
What Causes Homelessness
The History of Homelessness in Austin
The Importance of Change
Leaders in Change
An overview of the i-team's ongoing projects
Factors Leading to Homelessness
What Causes Homelessness?
Despite common perception, homelessness doesn’t just happen because of substance abuse or mental illness; those are just the visible causes that we can see when we encounter people living on the street. Instead, homelessness happens when factors at multiple levels of society - the structural, institutional, relationship, and individual levels - combine to create a difficult set of circumstances in someone’s life. Unfortunately, major contributors to homelessness such as poverty and childhood trauma tend to repeat themselves in families from generation to generation, making the cycle of homelessness extremely difficult to break.
Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, drawing huge numbers of educated and affluent new residents each year. Unfortunately, this inflow of people drives up rents across the city - but especially in East Austin - squeezing out low-income residents who can’t pay the increasing cost of living. Because of Austin’s historically racist housing policy, we have a shortage of affordable housing that disproportionately affects low-income minority residents.
We often discharge people from jails, hospitals, foster care, and the military without making sure they have stable housing when they leave. Below you can see the ways these different institutions can possibly lead to individual experiencing homelessness:
The period after psychiatric hospitalization can be unstable for people with mental illness. They are at high risk of suicide, rehospitalization, and violence against others. There is little continuity of care between the institution and follow-up outpatient care. Especially for people with substance use disorders and persistent psychiatric symptoms, the ultimate result is often homelessness.
Vets have often been separated from their family and friends for a long time by the time they get discharged. When they get back to civilian life, they often lack the social support they need. Adjusting back to civilian life is difficult when skills useful for the military and skills useful for civilian jobs don’t overlap very much. Following discharge, veterans face the following issues: isolation, employment barriers, disabilities, and mental health.
After leaving prison, ex-inmates face barriers to accessing services and regaining stability when they leave prison. Unlike services for veterans or people with disabilities, no system prioritizes services for ex-inmates. Regaining housing and employment is also difficult, because landlords and employers discriminate against people with criminal records. Communities of color experience several unique risk factors that contribute to higher levels of crime and poorer educational outcomes, both of which increase people’s risk of becoming homeless later on.
Kids “age out” of foster care at age 18, but many kids aren’t ready to support themselves at that age. Studies suggest that growing up in foster care does not prepare kids for the transition to living on their own, so it is not surprising that a large proportion of people experiencing homelessness grew up in foster care.
People need positive relationships with others to be healthy. Relationship breakdown, such as a breakup or the death of a caregiver, often pushes people over the edge when they’re already struggling to make ends meet. The end of such a relationship can mean losing housing, a source of money, and a source of social support all in one.
People may struggle with their own vulnerabilities. Substance abuse and mental health issues make it difficult to function normally, and people often lose their jobs as a result. Disability is such a big contributor to homelessness that some definitions of homelessness depend on the person having a disability. Financial instability and the inability to pay rent, although related to the job market and other factors at the structural level, is another major cause contributing to homelessness.
What Went Wrong?
Despite repeated attempts to address general homelessness, no solution in Austin has yet been sustainable. Austin has tried to approach the issue from several angles, put previous attempts all share important drawbacks:
They lack the perspective of a real human experiencing homelessness. Services were not designed from the point of view of those people who would use them, and people experiencing homelessness were not involved in service design or policymaking.
They treat homelessness as a problem for individual people rather than as a challenge that entire communities must address. No previous strategy has taken into account all of the influences on people - at the structural, institutional, relationship, and individual levels, that contribute to their homelessness.
Homelessness is a community problem, and our solutions should solve for needs at various levels of vulnerability.
What Is The Importance of Change?
Through the i-team's research, we discovered three different pathways that people can take during their experiences of homelessness. A person experiencing homelessness can experience one or all three of these pathways during their journey. The most prevalent pathways we observe are the Deteriorating and Relapsing Paths, in which people get sicker and are not supported in making change.
People get sicker when services are not grounded in their realities and not designed to meet their needs. People deteriorate to the point where they need intensive services, costing the system more money.
Services struggle to support long term behavior change, often resulting in relapse. People fall back into the cycle of services again.
When people’s self-determination increases, they become more resilient and more likely to avoid deterioration and maintain their new behaviors.
We've created a high-cost system.
But there is hope.
If you are experiencing homelessness, it is extremely difficult to get out of your situation. Navigating the systems of services is complex, confusing, and a full-time job. Services have been created with the underlying assumption that people should simply be grateful with what they are given. Customer service and experience is a luxury that only businesses and corporations have.
Many people become homeless when different systems — medical and behavioral healthcare, criminal justice, employment, family services, affordable housing, education, etc. — have gaps that fail to support people. This is a siloed system that has created numerous unintended consequences like negative outcomes not foreseen by purposeful action and hidden dynamics that you uncover once you look beyond the surface.
Within the current way of doing things, we are keeping people trapped in their state of homelessness. This leads to suffering, violations of human rights, and the shortening of people's lifespans. Change is needed to finally place the human at the center of service design, because without the voices of people with lived experience to influence change, homelessness in Austin will not be resolved.
To learn more about how the current system prioritizes goals and how we could be encouraging self-determination within the system, visit our Importance of Change page.
Leaders in Change
Practices in Change
In our Austin community, there are many people working to make positive changes happen to help solve homelessness. Change is difficult, but through our work, we have identified practices that successful change leaders are using:
Collaborating With Others
Creating A Shared Understanding
A Commitment to Change
Leaders in change bring people together to plan, strategize, and execute. They work across boundaries, breakdown organizational silos, and diffuse competition. They also included others early on in decision-making, which strengthens a community’s buy-in to change. They value relationships and actively work to build and strengthen their networks.
Leaders in change explore what needs to change and why change is needed. They explain the purpose of the change- how it connects to our community values or how it benefits the community. These leaders honor a diversity of voices in the process because multiple points of view helps us better understand the challenges we face. With this shared understanding, we open up opportunities to find more impactful solutions because we know what real problems we are solving for.
Leaders in change know change can be very difficult, but that doesn’t keep them from trying. These leaders are persistent, patient, and brave. They commit their time and efforts even though they are busy because they believe it is important. These leaders are willing to step outside their comfort zone and continuously learn and improve. They focused on the big picture and celebrate the wins in order to maintain their focus, energy, and hopes in making a difference in their community.
Austin's Homelessness Advisory Committee (AHAC) was created in the fall of 2017 by the City of Austin’s Office of Innovation’s Bloomberg i-team in coordination with the Department of Public Health and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). Collectively, these entities are the “Organizers” for the committee.
We started with a 6-months pilot project that included 13 members who have previously or are currently experiencing homelessness to help with the development of research tools, consult on findings, and test possible solutions. By March 2018, we had grown to 16 members with a 90% attendance rate for each meeting.
The Homelessness Outreach Street Team (HOST) brings together the expertise of police officers, behavioral health specialists, community health paramedics, and court case managers in a collaborative initiative in Austin’s Central Business District to address proactively the needs of people living on the streets. This multidisciplinary team helps 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., Austin’s team is somewhat unique in the multi-disciplinary approach to proactive deployment on the streets.
We have separated our ongoing projects into 3 different categories: Tools, Prototypes, and Recommendations.
Tools enhance service delivery by solving for a specific need. Our tools address the needs of both people experiencing homelessness and service providers.
These tools include:
Prototypes are future services under construction. These are the services we are currently testing, and we co-create these projects with people who have lived experience of homelessness.
These prototypes include:
Recommendations suggest a way to change services to fit people's realities. Successful services empower the humans at their center, accommodating for their strengths and their needs.
These recommendations include:
SERVICE DESIGN HUSTLE
The Service Hustle for Homelessness brought together 40 design professionals along with 20 people with lived experience of homelessness in Austin for a weekend of explorative ideation, prototyping, and concept development. Participants used human-centered design principles to design services that could support people experiencing homelessness in new, innovative ways.
By the end of the weekend, participants had generated six viable service solutions to tangibly help improve the homelessness experience. They also walked away with a new, evidenced understanding of homelessness and design in Austin.
City contracts do not currently have a standardized process for capturing and sharing data related to service provision. Working together, the Sunlight Foundation, the i-Team, and CTM discovered that the lack of a transparent contracting process hinders coordinated efforts to address homelessness within the city. Existing performance measures do not capture the full spectrum of activities that are made possible for city funding: case management, basic needs, medical and mental health treatment, and even shelter. The city needs to adopt a process that better illustrates all of the services that they are funding, and how those services fit into the larger homelessness system.