Apr 01, 2021

Advocates: Austin Must Shift to Financially Responsible, Long-Term Approach to Homelessness

Reporting Texas

Photo Credit Community First Village Facebook Page

At the corner of Goodness Way and Peaceful Path sits a garden, park and dozens of chickens within a permanent housing community for those experiencing chronic homelessness. The hills are covered in colorful tiny homes with decorative flags and lights hanging from welcoming entryways. Formerly homeless men and women gather around a singer playing the guitar beside the garden, as others walk to the community market, bus stop or to greet their neighbors.

Here, residents are given a tight-knit family with their neighbors and a permanent home. 

Community First! Village is a 51 acre master-planned development which has given chronically homeless individuals a home in Austin since 2015. The subsidiary of Mobile Loaves and Fishes is a Christian nonprofit caring for and housing the chronically homeless through services such as mental health treatment, groups for those recovering from substance abuse and other programs providing physical and emotional treatment. CF!V provides holistic treatment for long-term care and a systematic response for those experiencing chronic homelessness in order to address the root causes oh homelessness, rather than create a quick fix to an intricate, multi-faceted issue. 

Amber Foggarty, president of Community First! Village, firmly believes one missing piece is a vital, nonnegotiable factor of any comprehensive program serving the homeless: family. 

“We see no examples of intact, loving families when people come here,” Foggarty said. “Homelessness is not the same problem in other countries because of different cultures surrounding families.” 

Homelessness has been a hot topic and key issue in Austin for decades, as no tangible answers or solutions have surfaced and the rates of homelessness gradually rise. People experience chronic homelessness in Travis County at almost double the rate of the state and the United States, according to Front Steps. The February winter storm which wreaked havoc across Texas brought renewed attention to the situation of thousands of people living on the streets of Austin as residents banded together to shelter and serve the homeless population during the snowstorm. 

Prior to winter storm Uri, Austin City Council purchased two additional hotels to house the homeless before reintroducing the camping ban to the ballot, yet Austin is in a dire financial crisis. The city’s approach to homelessness has failed to satisfy the needs of the city’s most vulnerable as well as its more affluent residents, according to the bipartisan citizen’s group Save Austin Now. Foggarty suggests that perhaps a comprehensive approach and an entire change in culture is key. 

“We have a hyperindividualistic culture, though none of us pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Foggarty said. “You had the safety net of family.”

Many place the blame on drug addiction, rising housing costs and mental health issues, which are undeniable causes of homelessness. CF!V goes further to claim the loss of family is truly at the root of every path to homelessness. 

“The profound, catastrophic loss of family is the greatest cause of homelessness,” Foggarty said. “People think addiction. Addiction exists in every family, but they have family to support them.” 

The camping ban repealed in 2019 will again be on the May 2021 ballot as Proposition B to vote whether or not “lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near the downtown area and the area around the University of Texas campus” will be considered illegal solicitation again. 

Many second-guess if hotels are the optimum long-term solution or a quick attempt to remove what many consider eye sores, rather than care for the city’s most vulnerable. Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak is against the allowance of homeless encampments in public spaces, so he created the petition that led to the camping ban being back on the ballot. 

“The homeless are worse off under the camping ordinance and it’s a tragedy,” Mackowiak said. “They are not receiving services like mental health treatment and drug and alcohol abuse treatment. We want the homeless safe and in sheltered environments. We are not anti-homeless, we are anti-camping.” 

Austin residents are divided on the city’s plan to combat homelessness, as the costs of potential long-term options are weighed with the benefits. Residents have varying opinions on what it will take to tackle the rate of homelessness. The swift decision and purchase of two hotels, one outside of Austin in Williamson County, happened within days. 

The Austin City Council purchased Texas Bungalows and Suites as well as the Candlewood Suites to house the homeless in February for $6.7 million and $9.5 million, respectively, for a total of $16.2 million dollars. The estimated annual cost of maintaining the hotels is a combined total of $3.8 million, of which will be taken from cuts to the police department budget. The hotels will open 65 and 83 rooms for those experiencing homelessness and will provide job aid, healthcare and mental health services. The city purchased and renovated Rodeway Inn for $8 million and Country Inn & Suites for $8.3 million in 2020, though the property was only appraised at $4.88 million, according to the Travis County Central Appraisal District. 

CF!V contains over 500 homes after the addition of 310 homes and will be over 180 acres following the completion of the building process of phase two. Following the site planning process and completion of phases three and four, CF!V will contain 1,200-1,400 additional homes. CF!V’s total annual expenses were $8.8 million, 87% of which went directly to services for the community members by maintaining low operating costs. In addition to mental and physical services, the village is novel in its creation of the Community Works micro-enterprise programs spanning from forgery, car care, eCommerce operations, gardens to art and much more. A total of $786,000 in income within 2019 was collectively earned by formerly homeless community members in the Community Works programs.

Though financial aspects of the approach to homelessness are vital to the success of the city and its residents, Foggarty argues that the people involved are more than problems to be addressed or statistics in an annual report. Homeless men and women should not be treated as such if the city wants a lasting and successful approach to chronic homelessness. 

“The biggest key is a relational approach,” Foggarty said. “My experience in the homelessness response system is that it is largely transactional. It’s not focused on a relationship with the person. That approach will never be successful. It’s a bandaid on a carotid artery bleed. It’s not enough.” 

Mackowiak supports providing safe and sheltered environments for the homeless in order to address the growing homelessness in Austin, but has concerns about the financial costs of the hotels compared to other options. 

“We support housing for the homeless, but the city has spent $163 million in fiscal years 2018-2020 and there is virtually no new homeless housing that has been produced,” Mackowiak said. “Where did that money go?” 

Mackenzie Kelly told USA Today that the lack of transparency in the decision-making process of the Austin City Council has deepened the lack of trust in the local government. Partnership with nonprofit organizations such as CF!V could provide a tried-and-true, fiscally responsible way to involve Austin residents in serving the homeless. 

“We have called for an independent and thorough audit of the $163 million,” Mackowiak said. “Since the ordinance passed, our homeless population has doubled. We cannot see that growth continue while we pledge to house every homeless person for the rest of their life. That’s a massive financial burden on taxpayers at a time when we have an affordability crisis in Austin.” 

Not only is CF!V a practical solution to combat homelessness, the model empowers Austinites to engage “in a lifestyle of service.” This familial, relational approach is revolutionizing the city, a city deeply in need of a fresh approach and ready to invite more supporters in to make a lasting change from the ground up. 

CF!V is continuing to grow, with phase four of the community aiming to add 76 acres and bring the total number of homes to an estimated 1200-1400 homes- all funded by donors and CF!V. 

“The goal is for this to be their forever home,” Foggarty said. “That’s what we long for.. Home is a place of permanence. We were founded on the Gospel, so to be a part of their homecoming story is the greatest privilege. We want to be a voice to change the conversation.” 

Yes, massive change is crucial to address Austin’s housing crisis. Simultaneously, Austin’s long-awaited change to end homelessness may begin with each person supporting those around them as well as successful housing models such as CF!V. To bring fresh change and success to Austin’s approach to homelessness, experts agree an integral missing piece needs to be recovered and created: family.