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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Austin business community to invest millions in helping homeless

A coalition of Austin businesses has spent the last few months quietly crafting a multimillion-dollar plan to develop immediate emergency housing solutions for people living on the streets of Austin.

Austin Chamber of Commerce President Mike Rollins wouldn’t discuss all the specifics of the plan with the American-Statesman on Wednesday but said it would involve a “double-digit million dollar” investment over the next two years. He said the group of business leaders have studied efforts to address homelessness in San Diego and Minneapolis, focusing on providing low-barrier, immediate housing options.

The coalition includes individuals, businesses, faith-based organizations and philanthropic groups that want in on the effort, Rollins said. “We want to help where we believe the biggest gap is, and that gap is helping the vulnerable population that are living on the streets.”

Gov. Greg Abbott mentioned the coalition earlier this week when he announced state officials would begin clearing homeless encampments under overpasses starting Monday. The governor previously threatened to use state resources to address Austin’s homelessness issues if the City Council did not take appropriate action by Friday.

The state began notifying people living under bridges on Tuesday that they and their possessions would be removed. Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement that the notices were the first step to clear encampments from underpasses and to provide people who are homeless with access to resources for services and care.

Wittman did not specify what services would be offered, as Austin’s shelters are already at capacity, and state officials said they would not provide new, immediate shelter options on Monday.

“In addition to these short-term services, the Office of the Governor is working with a coalition consisting of private sector and faith-based organizations on longer-term solutions,” Wittman said. “This effort is spearheaded by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and is focused on meeting he needs of unsheltered Austinites not currently being addressed.”

Abbott’s announcement was the latest in a series of barbs between him and Mayor Steve Adler over Austin’s homelessness issue. The pair have been trading criticism on Twitter as city and state staffers work to solve the issue — apparently along separate paths.

“We briefed the governor on what we were doing, as we have briefed the city management on what we’re doing,” Rollins said. “As far as (Tuesday) was concerned, we were probably a little bit surprised when the media announcement came out on it in reference to our effort.”

Rollins said the chamber planned to publicize the plan, but it was not completely put together at the time of the announcement. Abbott’s mention seems to have thrust the group into a political battle between the city and state it wants no part of.

“Set aside politics. Let’s all focus on the vulnerable population. We welcome local government as partners. We welcome state government as partners, and clearly we have a number of businesses and individuals and faith-based organizations already stepping up to be involved in our coalition,” Rollins said. “There’s lots of room for more people to be involved.”

Other groups working on homelessness issues in Austin are doing a great job, but they do not have enough resources to tackle the issue alone, Rollins said. “Clearly, government alone cannot be successful by themselves. We believe that business can bring reasonable solutions to the table and want to be part of the solution.”

The chamber’s effort has rolled along while city leaders have struggled with how best to move Austin’s homeless population into long-term housing, expand options for permanent supportive housing and transitional housing, and adjust how Austin’s main homeless shelter delivers services.

Out of those efforts, Rollins said, business leaders have identified a gap between those living on the streets and those in more stable housing programs.

“The issue to us boils down to the people who are living everyday on the streets and have nowhere else to go,” Rollins said.

Right now, the only place for those people to go are a couple of shelters that almost always run at capacity and have historically had rules that separate people from their pets or significant others, or had certain behavioral requirements with which many couldn’t comply. Some of those rules have been relaxed in recent weeks.

Since the Austin City Council in June amended city rules to allow camping in public places, members of Austin’s homeless community left in the lurch have been far more visible, living on sidewalks, under bridges and in other public spaces, only to be moved when police or city leaders tweaked rules.

But even before that, Rollins said business leaders had noticed increased visibility of people who are homeless.

“Back in March of this year, we began to hear many more voices from business leaders about concern for their employees, concern about safety and that there was apparently an increase in visibility to a lot of our most vulnerable citizens living on the street,” he said.

A chamber task force has been meeting since April to craft the plan. Members traveled to Minneapolis in June and heard a presentation about one strategy to address homeless encampments, then visited San Diego earlier in October. There, they met with city leaders and professionals dealing with homelessness and toured shelters.

The final plan should be made public within a week to 10 days, Rollins said.

“Austin is known as a compassionate city,” he said, “and we have people each and every day, businesses being part of that group, asking: ‘What can we do? Tell me what to do.’”

By Mark Wilson

Austin-American Statesman

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