How Austin ended veteran homelessness

Mayor Steve Adler
Aug 19, 2016 · 5 min read

We did it! All of us! Two years after my predecessor, Lee Leffingwell, accepted the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro has certified that Austin has accomplished this remarkable feat.

Navy veteran Robert Hill, his wife Tenisha, and their three sons found permanent housing as a result of the Mayor’s Challenge to End Homelessness.

We got to this community win today in a classic Austin way. We were innovative, creative and determined. There was great work already being done when this initiative started, but these efforts weren’t quite getting the job done all the way. We needed a new way, new partners, and a wider and renewed commitment.

This great news required the arrival of a cavalry of new of heroes.

First, there were the heroes already engaged — homeless advocates who had been working on this for years without ever giving up hope, groups such as the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), Caritas, Front Steps, Green Doors, the Salvation Army, and Goodwill, as well as HUD, the Veterans Administration and the Housing Authority for the City of Austin.

They were doing good work, but they needed the additional capacity and partners necessary to ultimately succeed all the way. Despite help being provided to so many, still there were hundreds of veterans who still became chronically homeless, still needing to wait for months to get onto waiting lists for homes and social services. These already engaged heroes believed there was a solution before any of us knew where to look for it. I am grateful that they waited for the rest of us to show up.

What happened next was an important turning point. We doubled down on the efforts led by then Mayor Leffingwell and started an effort to recruit new partners who helped us tackle this problem in a whole new way.

The biggest problem that ECHO and others had was access to enough housing units to meet the need.

So we went out and got the realtors and apartment owners who had access to housing.

Putting housing advocates who need housing in the same room with real estate people who have housing units is so obvious you are entitled to ask why it took us so long to it figure out. But we all felt like we’d invented the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Putting housing advocates who need housing in the same room with real estate people who have housing units is so obvious you are entitled to ask why it took us so long to it figure out. But we all felt like we’d invented the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Paul Cauduro of the Austin Apartment Association, as well as the Austin Board of Realtors, the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and Senator Kirk Watson’s staff, didn’t need to be asked twice to help find permanent housing units for veterans.

But then we ran into a wall — fear of the unknown. Many landlords were will to help, but had the concern that veterans paying rent with VA vouchers might not make good tenants — that folks, some of whom had had encounters with the law or substance issues — might not make good tenants. So we started a risk fund called the Housing Heroes Fund — a fund created by all of us to be available in case something went wrong… just in case it was needed. And then the wall went away. (And by the way, there have been very few claims made to the fund.)

Suddenly, we were cooking with gas. The Housing Authority of the City of Austin expedited inspections. The VA focused resources with a can-do attitude. Rental property owners came out of the woodwork to offer help. All the service providers — those dogged heroes — worked with the property owners and kept them engaged. Donors stepped up to provide the financial backstop for the property owners.

It was the community working together — at the same table, sharing the same data — that helped us end veteran homelessness in Austin.

In all, the Austin Homeless Veterans Initiative — the coalition of the boots on the ground groups working on this — found permanent housing for 682 homeless veterans. One of them was James, a Marine, who, with his wife Kathleen, lived for a year and a half in a tent near the Greenbelt. They barely survived the Memorial Day flood in 2015. Many nights, they slept soaking wet.

Once they got on Caritas’ radar, a caseworker brought them water, bus passes, dry sleeping bags while Caritas worked to find permanent housing. Now that James and his Kathleen live in an apartment building that includes other vets who have found their homes through the Housing Heroes initiative. I am so grateful to everyone who helped bring this Marine and his family out of the rain.

This veteran initiative has changed who we are. We now have a greater capacity to do good that isn’t going away. It’s permanent and sustainable.

This veteran initiative has changed who we are. We now have a greater capacity to do good that isn’t going away. It’s permanent and sustainable.

HUD’s next goal is to end chronic homelessness in 2017. These are disabled folks who’ve been homeless for more than a year or four times in the last three years, and I’m pleased to tell you that the Austin Homeless Veterans Initiative has this accepted this challenge to end chronic homelessness. We’re celebrating this success by expanding its reach.

So, anyone within reach of my voice, know that we need housing units and we need contributions for the risk fund. We have more work to do in this community to address our city’s homeless challenge. Let’s be the city we aspire to be.

Those who raise their hand when asked the impossible are what makes us a better city and a more perfect union. They are why we were able to end veteran homelessness in Austin and why we will achieve even greater goals in the future. To them I say, with a heart full of gratitude, thank you.