Examination of Funding to Combat Homelessness in Austin Highlights the Importance of Basic Needs Social Services Contracts

The City of Austin addresses homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing under two separate types of Social Services Contracts. Homelessness prevention, in the form of rental and utility assistance for individuals and families facing eviction or foreclosure, is provided for under the City’s “Basic Needs” Social Services Contracts. Rapid re-housing, meaning placement in transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, falls under the City’s “Homeless” Social Services Contracts. While it may be popular to pour money into programs meant to clear the streets of homeless people, a true reduction in community homelessness is best served by funding programs that keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. By stopping the cycle of homelessness and providing rental and utility assistance with Basic Needs Contracts, we can prevent the streets from filling up again as quickly as we can get people off of them.

In the years following the completion of the federally funded Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program in Austin, an emphasis on Basic Needs Contracts has been maintained. The budget for Basic Needs Contracts dropped to $4,052,034 in FY 2012–13 (still almost double what it was prior to FY 2011–12), and it has increased with each subsequent fiscal year. It is no surprise that with this steady increase in funding for Basic Needs Contracts, a steady decrease in the point-in-time homeless population count has occurred, dropping from 2,244 in January 2012 to 1,832 in January 2015. Additionally, when the City of Austin shifted their approach and began funding Basic Needs Contracts more than Homeless Contracts in FY 2011–12, the percentage of households served by Social Services Contracts that maintained or transitioned into housing increased, sparking a positive trend.

Figure 1. The total number of homeless persons on the streets during ECHO’s annual point-in-time count steadily decreased (until this year) following the shift in priority to favor funding Basic Needs Contracts in 2011.
Figure 2. Funding priorities shifted in FY 2011–12 to favor Basic Needs Contracts.
Figure 3. When funding priorities shifted to favor Basic Needs Contracts in FY 2011–12, we see the first increase in the percentage of households able to maintain housing or transition into housing from homelessness.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, popularized in the media as The Stimulus or simply The Recovery Act, appropriated $1.5 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for their Homelessness Prevention and Rapid-Rehousing Program. On June 21, 2009, the City of Austin received a grant from HUD in the amount of $3,062,820.00 to help combat homelessness in Austin. City of Austin budget documents do not specifically highlight the federal HPRP funding (it falls under the “Grants” category in budget documents), but the City’s HPRP Program Report notes that client services utilizing the federal funds were initiated on December 1, 2009 with 100% of the funds being expended through the end of December 2011. The HPRP Program Report also reveals the breakdown of what entities received the HUD grant money (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 4. The whole of the 2009 HPRP federal grant was used to fund Homeless Social Services Contracts.

Figures 5 and 6 reflect data gathered from the City of Austin’s annual budget documents, and they show the funding for these two types of Social Services Contracts from fiscal year 2009–10 to fiscal year 2014–15. In order to properly assess the effectiveness of the budget allocations found in Figures 5 and 6, we must compare them to the data in Figure 1, showing the number of people in Travis County experiencing homelessness in an annual point-in-time count from 2009–2016 (taken from the ECHO Homelessness Point-In-Time Count Report), and Figure 3 which shows the percentage of households served through City of Austin Social Services Contracts that maintain housing or transition into housing from homelessness (found in City of Austin budget documents) for the same time period examined in Figures 5 and 6. It is worth noting that the homeless population numbers reflect the total homeless population, not just those served by ECHO.

Figure 5. Funding for Homeless Social Services Contracts received substantial boosts from the HPRP federal funds in fiscal years 2009–10 and 2010–11.
Figure 6. Funding for Basic Needs Contracts was kept relatively low until the switch in priority that occured during FY 2011–12.
Figure 7. In FY 2011–12, Basic Needs Contracts made up a greater percentage of the General Fund budget than did Homeless Contracts for the first time.

For fiscal year 2009–10 (October 1, 2009 to October 1, 2010), Basic Needs Contracts received $1,939,841 ($0 of which was identified as grant money), while Homeless Contracts received a whopping $7,908,215 ($2,083,288 of which was identified as grant money). This means that no money from the HUD grant was used to assist with the Basic Needs Contracts responsible for providing rental and utility assistance to keep people in their homes. The point-in-time homeless count performed in January 2010 of this fiscal year identified 2,087 homeless individuals living in Travis County, and 77% of households served by Social Services Contracts were able to either maintain housing or transition into housing.

With this baseline established, we can examine the effect that the HUD grant money had on Figures 1 and 3 going forward. In FY 2010–11, the budget for Basic Needs Contracts increased by $404,854 for a total of $2,344,695, again including $0 in grant money. During this same fiscal year, the budget for Homeless Contracts increased by $982,933 for a total of $8,891,208, with $3,214,311 being from grants. No grant money was ever allocated for Basic Needs Contracts during any of the fiscal years examined. It appears, though, that the approach of designating grant money for Homeless Contracts which would rapidly re-house homeless individuals was ineffective in truly combatting Austin’s homeless epidemic. In 2011, the number of homeless individuals in the point-in-time count increased by 275 persons (for a total of 2,362 homeless individuals compared to Austin’s overall 2011 population of 838,799) , and the percentage of households served by Social Services Contracts that maintained or successfully transitioned into housing dropped from 77% to 75%.

In FY 2011–12, with no more HUD grant money to play with, the City decided to try out a different approach to remedy its issues with homelessness by increasing its Basic Needs Contract budget by $4,032,531. This nearly tripled the Basic Needs Contract budget from the previous year, for a total of $6,377,226 comprised of General Fund and Sustainability Fund money. Lacking grant money, the Homeless Contract budget fell to $6,128,939 in FY 2011–12, and this shift in priority produced noticeable results. In January 2012, the annual homeless population count decreased by 118 individuals. An even better indicator of success, the percentage of households that maintained or transitioned into housing rose from 76% to 81.47% year over year from FY 2011–12 to FY 2012–13.

While other factors such as the migration of homeless persons to Austin and APD’s non-enforcement of the No Sit/No Lie oridnance in certain parts of the city certainly affect the homeless population, it is important to note the key role that City of Austin Social Services Contracts and their funding play in combatting homelessness. The City of Austin must recognize that prioritizing the funding of Basic Needs Contracts leads to greater success in the fight against homelessness, and city leaders should continue to implement budgets with this strategy in mind.