Austin residents can now vote on Proposition B, which would reinstate a city ban on camping, sitting, lying and other activities in certain public places. City Council overturned the ban in 2019 after a successful campaign by advocates, who argued that it criminalized homelessness.
Since then, however, the city's homeless population has grown, both in size and visibility, prompting concerns from residents, business owners and elected officials about public health and safety. Texas lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on public camping, in a clear rebuke to local policy.
Prop B supporters and opponents agree that homelessness has reached crisis status in Austin, but they also acknowledge the ban will do little to address the root causes of homelessness. So who is homeless in Austin, and why?
The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a local nonprofit, conducts a homeless census, called the point-in-time count, each January. This year's count was canceled due to pandemic concerns; the 2020 count found a nearly 45% increase in the local unsheltered homeless population compared to 2019 count, which ECHO attributed to a 39% increase in volunteers, among other factors.
Chris Harris, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project and an activist who helped overturn the camping ban, attributed this growth to rising housing costs in Austin and the pandemic recession. "There are really good reasons for it to go up," he told Austonia.
The point-in-time count helps identify trends but is considered an undercount. National consultants hired by the city of Austin estimate that 10,350 people in Austin-Travis County—around 1% of the total county population—experienced homelessness over the course of Fiscal Year 2020, according to a July 2020 report. Austin ISD estimates nearly 2,000 of its enrolled students experienced homelessness in the 2018-19 school year.
ECHO's Point-in-Time count data provides some indication of disparities in the local homeless population. For example, Black individuals are significantly overrepresented, making up around 9% of the Travis County population but more than 36% of the 2020 Austin-Travis County homeless population. Similarly, veterans account for around 4% of the county population but more than 10% of the homeless population.
The root causes of homelessness are harder to pin down.
There are individual factors, such as severe mental illness, addiction, domestic violence and poverty. Youth may become homeless when they age out of foster care or are thrown out of their homes.
A used syringe found on the ground at a homeless encampment under an overpass in South Austin near the Westgate shopping center. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Substance use is both a cause and a result of homelessness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that around 18% of homeless Texans are severely mentally ill, 12% are chronic substance abusers and 11% are victims of domestic violence, according to 2020 point-in-time count data. Up-to-date data on substance use is sparse, but a 1996 national survey of homeless assistance providers and clients found that more than 80% of chronically homeless individual has experienced lifetime alcohol and drug problems.
Experts point to myriad systemic reasons for the increasing number of homeless people across the U.S., including:
- urban renewal, during which affordable housing was destroyed
- the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients in the mid-20th century
- disinvestment in public housing and other welfare programs starting in the Reagan administration
- mass incarceration, which leaves many with criminal records that limit job and housing access
- drug epidemics
- increasingly expensive medical care
- widening income inequality
- rising housing costs
A minimum wage worker in the Austin metro would have to work 156 hours a week to afford a market-rate, one-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. There are 168 hours in a week; at $7.25 an hour, this work schedule would leave no money left over for other expenses.
In the last few months, the city of Austin has ramped up its response to homelessness, using federal COVID relief dollars to provide short-term rental assistance to more than 400 homeless residents; purchasing hotels that will provide permanent supportive 140 housing units for chronically homeless individuals, despite pushback; and passing the HEAL initiative, which aims to connect around 100 homeless camp residents to housing.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a local nonprofit, also recently announced a major expansion of Community First! Village, a master-planned community that is home to more than 220 formerly chronically homeless residents. Starting next summer, the village will grow to add 1,400 additional residences.
"There is no shortage of pressure to address this crisis, and the pressure has existed—and should have—long before the ballot initiative was even on the horizon," Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said during a press conference earlier this month.
Despite this pressure, the city's homelessness response remains underfunded. "We are far, far under-resourced to address the issue adequately," Grey said. "So the idea that, because we have spent or extended resources in response to this problem and it is not gone, I think, is a real logical fallacy."
This story was updated on April 21 to include context for the year-over-year increase in unsheltered homelessness detailed in the 2020 Point-in-Time count.
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No matter how long you’ve been in Austin, Samuel Grey Horse has probably been here longer than you and the spirit of his indigenous ancestors walked the land far before anyone living did. Born and raised in the capital city in 1961, the city has grown and changed all around him.
You’ve probably seen or heard of Grey Horse before—he’s been called the “Sixth Street Cowboy” due to his penchant for riding his horses through the city streets, dressing up as Santa Claus during the holidays and making national news back in 2011 when he received a DUI while riding his mule down Sixth Street.
“I remember when I could see the capital from anywhere,” Grey Horse told Austonia during a visit to his East Austin ranch. “I never thought or imagined that I would see Austin like this.”
Now, living with his three horses, mule and dogs in East Austin on “the road that time forgot,” Grey Horse lives the “Native” lifestyle; he cares for his horses, tends to his garden, holds sacred prayer ceremonies, writes music, sings with legendary musicians and occasionally films with Richard Linklater, director of "Dazed and Confused."
Just as Austin changed over the years, so too did Grey Horse. On June 26, 2010, he was in an accident that he credits for changing his life. While riding a racing horse, Grey Horse’s saddle came loose and dragged him underneath for 150 yards. By the time they had stopped, Grey Horse had 12 broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a broken neck, broken clavicle, cracked skull, broken wrist and went into a coma.
“I had all the things done to me but that's how the universe teaches you,” Grey Horse said. “They said I would never ride a horse again or walk correctly, but no, I don't live in that world, because where I went to with my coma. I was living in another world, in the other world’s illusion.”
His road to recovery was long, arduous, miraculous and aided by his horses: Big Tex, Big Red and mule Mula, who have all been in his care for well over a decade. Grey Horse said they took care of his “energy” when he needed them most. Despite the pain that ensued from horses, his accident drew the cross-species family together.
Big Red and Mula have been living with Grey Horse for 16 and 14 years, respectively. (Sam Grey Horse/Instagram)
“I ride them around town and share them with everybody because everything has a purpose,” Grey Horse said. “You don't throw something away just because it's a little beat up. I was all beat up.”
The winters are still painful for his joints but he powers through so he can bring joy to the people of Downtown Austin in his Santa Claus costume every year.
“I can't hurt because I'm Santa Claus, and I got to be Santa for the kids and everybody. I give them inspiration and energy, I make millions happy downtown,” Grey Horse said. “I sing often with a cordless mic, my horses dance and they're happy. If I can make one person happy that makes a difference.”
Though it was never his intention, a career in music found Grey Horse and it felt right due to his mother telling him as a child he would be a singer one day. Grey Horse recently returned from his tour with The Greyhounds and Sir Woman across Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
His original song, “Crow Dog,” is a tribute to his life and the people who have passed along their loving energy in it.
Show biz can’t get enough of Grey Horse, who also models for Patagonia and Levi’s; he taught Joe Jonas how to ride a horse for a video shoot. He is now working with a British filmmaker on a documentary, and was featured on episode 10 of Linklater’s “That Animal Rescue Show.”
“I sing with Grammy winners, which is very special to me, and I write songs about my life. Very magical stuff,” Grey Horse said. “(The tour) was one of the best runs we've done for now—people are out and want to get out and the energy the guys bring is amazing.”
You’re certain to see Grey Horse around town if you spend some time near The Continental Club on South Congress or the Texas Capitol into the night. Until then, tok sha.
“There are no words for goodbye in my language, it's 'tok sha,'” Grey Horse said. “It means I’ll see you again. I'll see you soon. I'll see you in the next life.”
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For women who feel threatened while they’re out, an app that lets users easily call for help is now available in Austin.
Launching in the capital city on Tuesday, SafeUP, works by training users over the age of 18 who are known as “guardians” on how to respond in times of crisis. Those who are placing a call for help are connected to guardians less than half a mile away who, depending on the situation, can chat on the phone or physically go to the user and escort them.
SafeUP allows women to contact others who can help them when in danger. (SafeUP)
First launched in Israel, the app was co-founded by Neta Schreiber, who became interested in safety tools after her friend went missing at a house party about a decade ago.
"My friend and I searched for her in a panic, and, as we headed upstairs, we heard her voice amidst a group of men's voices," Schreiber has stated. "We went into one of the rooms and there they were—the men and our friend, half-naked, fighting them."
The assailants fled once the friends stepped in. "We managed to get there just in time," Schreiber said. "Luck and women saved my friend that night."
Schreiber told Reuters that during the testing phase of SafeUP, two guardians stepping in was enough to have people leave a woman alone.
Earlier this month, SafeUP became active in other major cities including Boston, San Francisco, Miami and New York City. There are more than 70,000 members in the global network with approximately 200 guardians in Austin so far.
Mira Marcus, a spokesperson for SafeUP, told Austonia most users are millennials and younger, and a lot of college students use the app, which made an Austin launch especially fitting. The company also has a partnership with Lime so that guardians can take free rides to reach a person.
SafeUP's partnership with Lime allows users to take free rides to a person calling for help. (SafeUP)
“You could always call the police, but they won’t necessarily be there within a matter of a minute or two. You could always speed dial your mom or girlfriend, but they won’t always be available to answer,” Marcus said. “The idea behind SafeUP is no matter where you are and what time, you can always turn on the app and see on the map the guardians around you.”
The app also allows users to call the police if the guardian finds the situation requires their backup. With that function, the app uses the phone’s camera and microphone to record evidence.
In a somewhat similar fashion, the Austin Police Department discussed possibly issuing a civilians unit to assist with non-emergency crimes over the summer. The discussion came as the department announced it would not respond to 911 calls where there was not a present danger due to a staffing shortage.
Some have turned to personal safety tech as public safety in Austin continues to be a hot topic with a record-breaking number of homicides in the city.
SafeUP joins other tech like the Citizen app and Ring cameras that track crime and include tools for reporting to the police. Some scholars and activists have criticized this tech for potential racial and gender bias, as well as expansion of surveillance. Biometric data is also taken in before users have full access to the SafeUP app so they can be verified as female, though facial recognition systems have a tendency to vary in accuracy.
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Giving Tuesday: Dell Foundation gives $38 million to combat homelessness as Austin celebrates 'radical generosity'
It's the most (philanthropic) time of the year, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation added to Central Texas' $100 million Giving Tuesday donations by promising a $38 million commitment towards combatting homelessness in Austin.
The Round Rock-based foundation, headed by tech giant Dell CEO Michael Dell, will donate the lump sum to three local nonprofits: Multiplying Goodness, Foundation Communities and LifeWorks.
Almost all of the funds—$36.6 million—are headed to Multiplying Goodness, which is a capital campaign to grow the Community First! Village in Austin, a neighborhood that offers permanent housing for the homeless. The 51-acre housing development has already rented out tiny homes to 220 formerly homeless residents and has plans to add 1,400 more units with the Multiplying Goodness program headed by Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
Dubbed a "hand up, not hand out" program by Mobile Loaves CEO and Founder Alan Graham, the neighborhood also helps residents with services and resources as they leave homelessness behind.
The Dell foundation is asking the public to match their donation as the "most talked about neighborhood in Austin" looks to reach its $150 million goal. Expansion of the Community First! Village is expected to break ground in 2022.
“As Austin grows, it’s more important than ever that we care for those most vulnerable in our communities,” Dell Foundation's co-founder Susan Dell said in a press release. “By coming together as a community, we can provide those experiencing homelessness in Central Texas with the dignity they deserve through stable housing and the opportunity to experience community again. We are honored to partner with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Foundation Communities and LifeWorks—along with the broader Central Texas community through our community match—to accelerate the difference these organizations are already making on the ground each day.”
Community First! Village, a 51-acre housing development, currently houses over 200 formerly homeless people. (Community First! Village/Facebook)
The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation also announced a $1 million donation to Foundation Communities as they construct 100 units on the Burleson property at Community First! Village. LifeWorks Austin, a nonprofit aiming to end youth homelessness, will also receive $400,000 as it looks to provide permanent housing for local youth experiencing homelessness.
All three donations will funnel to the greater cause of ending homelessness in Austin, a hot topic in local politics in recent years. Around 3,000 Austinites are currently experiencing homelessness, with nearly 50% described as "chronically homeless." That's 25% above the national average.
Giving Tuesday has seen more than just the Dells digging into their pockets: known as a "global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world," the Tuesday after Thanksgiving has ushered in donations from corporations and private individuals around the world, including $100 million coming to Central Texas nonprofit I Live Here I Give Here.
The nonprofit has become the front for Central Texas' Giving Tuesday campaign. In 2020, Austin businesses, individuals and nonprofits contributed over 20 million acts of generosity during the holiday.
This year, Home Depot surprised small Austin nonprofit Green Doors with a $30,000 donation as they work to combat homelessness.
AppSumo, a leading digital marketplace for entrepreneurs, announced that it will match donations to Future Front Texas, PeopleFund and Swan Impact Network—all Central Texas nonprofits looking to benefit the area's small business owners—from Giving Tuesday through Friday at 5 p.m.
Local philanthropy group Impact Austin awarded $226,200 in grants to four Austin nonprofit organizations on Tuesday as part of their fall giving cycle, while Austin influencer Laura Lux agreed to match any donation under $1,000 given to Austin Pets Alive! on Giving Tuesday.
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