Recognizing the growing challenges facing individuals experiencing homelessness, this week the Austin City Council will consider a new initiative—the Homeless Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL)—to connect those living unsheltered to safe and stable housing and services.
Sponsored by Council Members Ann Kitchen, Mackenzie Kelly, Leslie Pool, Sabino 'Pio' Renteria, and Kathie Tovo, HEAL will connect people living in unsheltered camping to housing or safe shelter, create a path to permanent housing, and over time alleviate the need for unsheltered camping.
HEAL will be a collaboration among the City of Austin's Homeless Strategy Office, Austin Public Health, the City of Austin's Housing and Planning Department, Integral Care, and other community services providers.
HEAL will begin by identifying four unsheltered camping locations across Austin that present health and safety risks to both those who reside there and to the broader community. HEAL will then connect those residents to the housing options that best match their needs, which can include rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, and housing-focused shelter.
As important, individuals will also be connected to case management support and health care services, such as medical, behavioral, and substance use disorder services.
"Our shared goals are to ensure the health and safety of all who live in Austin, and with HEAL's integrated approach, we're reigniting our efforts to provide our unhoused residents with safe homes, case management, and social services," said Council Member Pool.
Once staff and community partners have connected individuals in these areas to housing and services, they will determine how to discontinue camping in these unsafe locations. In this process, the City of Austin will uphold its commitment to the decriminalization of homelessness.
"We owe our unhoused neighbors the same respect as any resident of Austin. The HEAL initiative demonstrates the City's commitment to compassionate responses, and to equitable treatment for both our housed and unhoused communities," noted Council Member Kelly.
HEAL will use a phased approach. Phase I, the first phase, will include four locations selected based on health and safety risk criteria. Future phases will include additional locations that pose risks and will incorporate information learned from Phase I.
The City of Austin is particularly well-positioned to begin HEAL at this time. In January 2021, the City of Austin hired a permanent Homeless Strategy Officer, Dianna Grey, with the expertise to coordinate the initiative.
To ensure success, the proposal dedicates at least $3 million for Phase I of the HEAL Initiative. The City learned from the "Guided Path" initiative around the ARCH the importance of dedicating sufficient resources for shelter, services, and permanent housing. The City has also learned from successful ongoing efforts focused on connecting veterans and youths experiencing homelessness to housing.
"We built a successful system that addressed youth and veteran homelessness, and this can be a model for HEAL," Council Member Renteria said. "That experience will make HEAL a success."
"We can end homelessness in this community and ensure every one of our neighbors has a safe and stable place to call home," said Council Member Tovo. "The city and our nonprofit partners can't do this work alone; we need the business and the broader community to join us in these efforts."
Housing and services for HEAL will increase the City's efforts and will not divert existing resources or funding from other programs. "The HEAL initiative will be a significant addition to the work that is being done by everyone serving our most vulnerable neighbors," said Council Member Kitchen. "While HEAL is not a singular solution to addressing homelessness in Austin, it is an important step toward providing people living unsheltered with safer and healthier housing and services without relying on policing. The HEAL Initiative provides a path to connect people to housing and cease camping in unsafe areas."
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