Nathan Ryan is the CEO of Austin-based consulting firm Blue Sky Partners, and a commissioner on Austin's Economic Prosperity Commission. As a commissioner, he contributes to strategy related to job creation and construction in the city. Views are his alone and do not reflect the views of Austonia.
Austin is in the middle of a years-long debate about homelessness. Right now, some are arguing that we should go back to the ban we had in place in early 2019 that made camping, sitting, lying and panhandling punishable by fine or jail. That response greatly oversimplifies the challenge we're dealing with.
Austin doesn't need a ban, it needs a plan.
Homelessness is at least four crises in one:
- An economic crisis
- A housing crisis
- A mental health and/or substance abuse crisis
- And a racial equity crisis
If we're going to meaningfully reduce homelessness, we need to acknowledge that it's not going to be as simple as reinstating a ban. We also deserve to know where we are in this process, which is why we're going to have to demand that Austin City Council put together a comprehensive plan with benchmarks and a timeline so progress can be reported on frequently.
That being said, I have some ideas.
Financial Security: According to a Federal Reserve report from 2018, nearly 40% of Americans wouldn't be able to cover a surprise $400 bill. Layoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly made the economic situation more dire for many Americans and has likely pushed many to the brink of homelessness. To address this, Austin City Council should make direct cash assistance programs like 2020's Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) Fund permanent. We should also look at how we can expand economic assistance related to utility bills through Austin Energy and Austin Water.
Housing: Austin is an incredible city, which is why more than 160 new people move here per day. In just the last year, the average cost of a home in Austin has gone up 14%, to $448,406. The reason housing prices are going up so drastically is simple: we don't have enough housing supply to meet demand. Because Texas is a property tax-based state, rising property values make it more likely that people will be pushed out of their homes—and the lack of supply means it's harder to house individuals experiencing homelessness. That's why Austin City Council should continue to invest in Permanent Supportive Housing like hotels and consider creating city-sanctioned encampments with wraparound support services. But on housing, the single most important thing Council could do is to finish the job they started with CodeNEXT to upzone Austin and allow all types of housing to be built all over the city. Upzoning Austin will allow our supply to keep up with demand.
Mental Health: According to Johns Hopkins, an estimated 26% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression and anxiety are most common, but things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are relatively common, too. Substance abuse often coexists alongside mental health issues, and both are exacerbated by economic stress, anxiety, and homelessness. Just last week, Austin announced that its 911 call script now includes mental health as a requested emergency service. That's an important start. But any plan to address homelessness needs to include more consistent access to mental health care and better case management as well. One big step Austin could take is to help each of Austin's many homeless service organizations develop a coordinated database so it's clear where the service gaps are so they can be met. We have too much data in too many different places.
Racial Equity: Lastly, Austin has a history of segregation and systemic racism that continues to rear its ugly head. This is true when it comes to homelessness, too: in Austin, even though Black Austinites represent 7.6% percent of our population, they represent more than one-third of our homeless population. As regards criminal justice, Black and brown Austinites are more likely to be stopped, searched and cited by law enforcement than white/Caucasian residents like me.
These crises compound—it's far too easy to see how one can lead to the other, or one slip up could cause someone to become unhoused. I can understand and empathize with public safety concerns on this issue. Everybody should feel safe and everybody should be safe in Austin, Texas.
But this is why it's so important that we don't simply knee-jerk react our way back to a policy that criminalizes homelessness.
Austin needs a comprehensive plan to address the economic, housing, mental health and racial equity crises that undergird this Gordian knot of a challenge. Putting that plan together is going to require City Council to make some unpopular decisions. It's also going to require that we, as residents of Austin, continue to be the compassionate and helpful people I know we are.
Austin City Council did not create this problem, but they hold the keys to fix it.
Read another opinion column:
The Austin woman suspected of killing star cyclist visiting from out of town, Moriah "Mo" Wilson, has now been captured after evading arrest for more than a month.
Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, an Austin yoga instructor, is believed by officials to be the killer of Wilson, who was found with gunshot wounds in a friend's house on May 11. The murder is being investigated as a crime of passion after Wilson met up with Armstrong's ex-boyfriend.
According to the U.S. Marshals, Armstrong was located at a hostel on Santa Teresa Beach in Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Officials said she may have been using her sister's name after fleeing Austin on May 14, the day after police questioned her. She was last identified at Newark Liberty International Airport on May 18.
Federal authorities say they plan on returning Armstrong to the U.S., where she'll face charges of murder and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Here's a timeline of events since the night of Wilson's murder.
- The night of her death, Wilson met with Armstrong’s ex-boyfriend Colin Strickland, a fellow pro cyclist. According to an affidavit, the pair went swimming, then to dinner, before he dropped Wilson off at her friend's home where she was staying in East Austin at around 8:30 p.m.
- While Wilson and Stickland had previously had a romantic relationship, Stickland said the two were friends. The affidavit says Strickland lied to Armstrong about his whereabouts that evening.
- Video footage shows Armstrong’s Jeep pulled up nearby the home within a minute of Wilson arriving home.
- At around 10 p.m., Wilson's friend called Austin police after finding her in a pool of blood. Wilson had been staying with the friend ahead of the upcoming bike race in nearby Hico, Texas.
- Armstrong was brought in for questioning the day after the murder and released after appearing “very still and guarded” when confronted with video evidence.
- The Lone Star Fugitive Task Force said her black Jeep Cherokee was sold to a South Austin CarMax dealership on May 13 for $12,200.
- She leaves from the Austin airport on May 14.
- Shell casings found on the scene matched a gun belonging to Armstrong.
- Austin police obtained an arrest warrant for Armstrong on May 17.
- She took a flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to San Jose, Costa Rica on May 18 using a fraudulent passport, according to the Marshals.
- On May 25, another warrant was obtained for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
- On June 29, she was captured by the U.S. Marshals
On Thursday, the Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority in regulating greenhouse gases, a move that comes at a time when experts have warned about the need to take action on climate change.
The ruling was brought after a challenge to a lower court opinion brought by Texas and more than a dozen other states.
Vaibhav Bahadur, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin called the SCOTUS decision significant, noting that Texas is the biggest energy producer in the U.S., and produces more energy than the United Kingdom.
“Power generation accounts for a significant fraction of U.S. carbon emissions, and the EPA loses its ability to control what's happening in about half of that sector,” Bahadur said. “And it's not just the U.S., I think people and environmentalists on pretty much anywhere on the planet will be disappointed because this is going in the wrong direction. We know we want to be decarbonizing, and this is essentially putting a roadblock on progress toward decarbonization.”
So, we’re going to need some insurance, Bahadur says. He’s carrying out work that’ll act as such through his research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the process of sucking carbon from the air and burying it.
For the past five years, he’s been working on a novel approach to storing carbon. It involves supercharging the formation of carbon dioxide-based crystal structures and storing billions of tons of carbon under the ocean floor.
“If all of this is successful, then we will have another option for safely and responsibly storing carbon at the bottom of the seabed for essentially eternity,” Bahadur said.
Still, Bahadur talked about a different approach to responsibly cutting down emissions in the next decade, and doing so in a meaningful and substantial way, then the environment will eventually heal itself and we might not need CCS.
But that’s not the path we’re headed down.
“We're already starting to see temperature records being shattered this year, and we're still to hit peak summer,” Bahadur said. “All of this just makes me think that we need CCS to a larger extent, and possibly sooner than what a lot of scientists anticipate, especially if we can't keep our emissions in check.”
Gary Rochelle, a professor in the department of chemical engineering at UT, thinks CCS was ready to be deployed in 2010 and those 12 years have made a difference.
“But now we've emitted all that CO2,” Rochelle said. “And unfortunately, unlike other pollutants, when you emit CO2, it's there. It's not going away.”
Gary Rochelle and Vaibhav Bahadur are both researching technology to address carbon emissions. (UT)
Still, the delay is good in that now researchers like him have had time to learn about and improve the technology, allowing for fewer problems once it's deployed.
In December, UT announced a licensing agreement with advanced technology company Honeywell. The technology from that is targeted at power, steel, cement and other industrial plants to lower emissions.
Rochelle has been working on the technology since 2000 as part of an international collaborative effort. When he talked to Austonia on Thursday, he had just had calls with collaborators in Germany and Norway. Currently, he’s working with some Ph.D. students on addressing a chemical reaction that can happen with the technology known as oxidation that could lead to ammonia emissions and cause problems for a large-scale commercial unit.
Rochelle says he’s driven to this work because he wants to make a contribution.
“We're trying to develop this technology so that we can make a difference,” Rochelle said. “It's a nice problem to work on. The students are motivated and those are the primary things which drive us.”
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott celebrated the high court’s decision which acted as a blow to President Joe Biden’s plan to reduce emissions.
“Today’s landmark victory against an out-of-control administration is also a big win for Americans who worry about skyrocketing energy costs due to expensive federal regulations that threaten our energy industry,” Abbott said. “President Biden cannot keep attacking the energy industry and the hardworking men and women who power our nation.”
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