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Austin's homeless population fell slightly in 2021, new estimate shows

Homeless camps are common along Cesar Chavez Street near Lady Bird Lake. (Emma Freer/Austonia)

The local homeless population totaled 3,160 people on one day earlier this year, according to a new estimate from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

ECHO developed a new methodology for estimating the homeless population on a given day in late January. Using the new method against past years' data, the local nonprofit found that the 2021 estimate was slightly lower—1.1%—than last year's.

Other findings include:

  • A 21.1% decrease in the sheltered homeless population between 2019 and 2021
  • A 20.6% increase in the unsheltered homeless population over the same time period
ECHO attributed the shift from sheltered to unsheltered homelessness to a combination of factors, including reduced shelter capacity at two local shelters.

A new method

ECHO typically conducts an in-person point-in-time count—an annual homeless census—each January. The 2020 point-in-time count was performed on Jan. 25 and found a total of 2,506 homeless people, including 1,574 who were unsheltered. Due to the pandemic, the 2021 PIT Count was canceled.

As an alternative, ECHO developed a new method for estimating a single-day snapshot using its Homeless Management Information System, which tracks individual information and demographics over time. It pulled data from Jan. 28, 2021.

Because of differing methodologies, ECHO warns that this year's estimate and past point-in-time count data should not be compared. "To use an analogy, the differences between this method and the traditional PIT Count method are akin to the differences between visually counting as many cars as possible in Travis County for a few hours on a single day in 2020, pulling DMV records for cars registered in Travis County on a single day in 2021, and comparing the two to determine how the number of cars has changed year to year," the nonprofit explained in a Friday press release.

ECHO plans to use this new method to provide monthly snapshots in addition to the annual PIT Count.

Increased visibility

Although many Austinites feel the homeless population has increased in size over the past year, ECHO points to the data as an indicator that this is unlikely. Instead, the increased visibility of the city's homeless population is likely due to pandemic-related measures, such as the distribution of tents by service providers to encourage homeless people to isolate and CDC guidelines not to disrupt homeless camps, which the city of Austin observed.

"When taken together, these health and safety measures increase the visibility of homelessness in public places, but our data indicate this visibility is not reflective of a rise in the number of Austinites who are experiencing homelessness," Director of Research and Evaluation Akram Al-Turk said in a statement.

This could soon change, however. "We anticipate a possible delayed rise in homelessness when the eviction moratorium and unemployment benefits end, as rents continue rising, and people feel safer accessing services," Vice President of Quality Assurance Sarah Duzinski said during a Friday press conference.


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