Understanding the depth of Austin’s homelessness crisis is going to be difficult this year as the group responsible for counting the number of people living without shelter says it won’t make a count this year because of COVID-19 safety considerations.
Concerned that face-to-face interactions would risk the health of volunteers and members of the homeless community, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition — commonly known as ECHO — said it has canceled its annual point-in-time count of people suffering from homelessness.
The announcement from ECHO came Thursday, three weeks before staff and volunteers were scheduled to canvass the city to count unsheltered people on Jan. 28. Instead, the group said it will use alternative methods to get a rough estimate of the city’s homeless population, including a database used to track services provided to unsheltered people.
“We have a responsibility to our neighbors experiencing homelessness, as well as to our staff, volunteers, and community, not to engage in activities that increase the risk of spreading the virus,” said Sarah Duzinski, ECHO’s vice president of quality assurance.
The count’s cancellation comes days after Austin’s new homeless strategy officer began her duties. Dianna Grey, a former housing and homelessness consultant, will lead the city’s effort to end homelessness. The job pays her $136,011 annually. Austin had been without a homeless strategy officer for more than a year.
Every other year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a point-in-time count in communities, like Austin, that receive federal funding to address homelessness. This was slated to be a required year. But because of the pandemic, the government allowed communities to seek exceptions to a standard unsheltered count, and ECHO requested and received approval for an exception last year.
In January 2020, Austin’s point-in-time count revealed 1,574 people were unsheltered —meaning they were living outside, in tents or in automobiles. That was a 45% increase from the 2019 count, which was done before the City Council repealed a city ban against camping in public spaces — a decision that may have falsely inflated the percentage increase due to a number of homeless people moving into plain sight from remote areas.
In Thursday’s announcement, ECHO suggested that a standard point-in-time count would have revealed another increase in unsheltered people this year. That’s due, in part, because of economic pains from the pandemic, said ECHO, which then took a shot at the federal government’s “multiple failures to implement a rent relief plan, a uniform eviction moratorium, and an extension of increased unemployment benefits.”
Last year’s count relied on 886 volunteers and staff. ECHO said it would have gotten far fewer counters this year because of the pandemic, likely leading to an undercount of the homeless population.
The count is a valuable resource to understand trends year to year, but ultimately we feel the risks this year far outweigh the benefits to our community,” Duzinski said.