The challenge of reducing homelessness is front and center of the social and political agenda in Austin, Texas. There are many different models and approaches being used to address the very different populations that comprise our homeless populations. This fact highlights the reality that individuals experiencing homelessness are not a homogenous group of people, but rather a diverse population with differing needs and challenges and that require different strategies for success.
There are many “best practices” that are operating within our community that have gained national recognition: Lifeworks is focusing on reducing homelessness among our youth, Mobile Loaves and Fishes Community First! Village development offers a unique model of independent living within a strong community, Salvation Army has expanded its services to include shelters for women and children, and the SAFE Alliance includes emergency housing for survivors of abuse. In addition, the City of Austin has only recently decided to fund a new homeless shelter in South Austin to help add capacity beyond what we have in the ARCH Facility operated by Front Steps. Even with all of these organizations, the problem continues to grow and the challenge continues to be chronic.
There is now an exciting development that will take a major step to reduce the excessive costs of providing recurring service to individuals experiencing homelessness. Integral Care, formerly Austin Travis County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, is in the final stages of building one of the more important and unique housing developments to serve individuals experiencing chronic homelessness in the history of Central Texas, Terrace at Oak Springs.
The Importance of the “Housing First” Model
This beautiful property, located across the street from the Willie Mae Kirk Branch of the Austin Public Library on Oak Springs Road, will have 50 fully furnished apartments and provide independent living based upon the successful “Housing First” model. This model is based upon the overwhelming evidence that having access to safe, decent, affordable and stable housing is the critical factor for success in other aspects of anyone’s life, including their health, their ability to learn, to keep a job, or to keep out of our criminal justice system.
Integral Care plans to target some of the most challenging and difficult populations to serve: those with behavioral health issues, including those with mental illness and chronic health conditions. These are people who show up in our emergency rooms, use our EMS System, our correctional facilities and require social services that are very expensive and recurring.
The residents will be selected for this housing by participating in the Coordinated Assessment, which is overseen by ECHO, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. This assessment is used to screen, prioritize and connect people to appropriate housing resources. 25 of these residents will be veterans and will receive rental support to make this affordable.
The complex will include the 3000 Oak Springs Clinic, which will not only serve the residents but will be open to the community from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. The clinic will offer scheduled appointments and use the same intake and assessment process that Integral Care uses for all of its services. In addition to housing and the health clinic, residents will have access to comprehensive supportive services including substance use treatment, primary and mental health care and employment services.
Many of the residents of the Terrace at Oak Springs would not be allowed to live in other affordable housing in Austin. Frequently, there are restrictions about substance abuse and criminal records that would keep them out of some of the most successful housing developments in Austin.
There will be property management staff onsite 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. There will be onsite security. Visitors will be required to check in, and there will be security cameras on the property. These measures will help to ensure the safety of the residents, the staff and the community. Registered sex offenders and individuals with a pattern of arson will not be allowed to live at the property.
Integral Care will not be alone in this fight. The Austin Police Department, Housing Authority of the City of Austin, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Veterans Administration, City of Austin, Austin Public Health, ECHO and Keep Austin Fed are all partners in this project.
The Terrace at Oak Springs will be a unique and special place to live. More importantly, it is as an investment that will pay significant dividends not only to the residents who will live there and receive the services provided, but to the greater Central Texas community.
It is difficult to calculate the cost of homelessness in any community and Austin is no exception. Without stable housing people are not able to stay healthy, which means they show up in emergency rooms of hospitals. Without stable housing their lives cannot be stable and therefore they must be served through the existing public service network, i.e. health care, criminal justice, and behavioral health care systems. The Housing First model has proven that by providing stable housing with strong and effective supportive services it will save those systems a minimum of $1 million per year. That is an average reduction of $20,000 per resident per year, and I personally believe that is a very conservative estimate.
How You Can Support This Cause
The Terrace at Oak Springs deserves the support of everyone in the community because it benefits everyone in the community, not just those lucky enough to live there. If we really want to help solve the crisis of homelessness in Central Texas, we need to build at least 10 more of these type of housing developments all over town. This “Housing First” model, combined with the medical, mental health and supportive services, with the required assessments could serve 500 of the most difficult to serve people in our community. Not only would that save us at least $10 million every year, it would help Austin become the city of compassion and innovation that it claims to be.
It is possible for anyone to support Terrace at Oak Springs by making a gift or donating a welcome kit for a future resident. Your gift will help provide the comforts of home and enhance the stabilizing effects of housing. When people feel safe in their living environment and have their basic needs met, they are more likely to take advantage of resources like substance use treatment and mental health care, reach their potential, and contribute to their communities.