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Austin Chronicle’s Wells Dunbar Keeps an Eye on the Homeless

Sketchy Alleyway on Red River next to Room 710Austin, Texas, has been the scene of many of Richard R. Troxell‘s liveliest campaigns for social justice, especially when it comes to housing the homeless. But if you’re not from Austin, don’t turn the page. We are at a point in history where every city needs to listen to every other city, to find out who is doing something right, and how they can be imitated. And to learn from each other’s mistakes. We can’t afford an extended learning curve. Hundreds of thousands of desperate people need help now.

So, how has the Austin Chronicle been covering the latest events in this area of civic responsibility? Earlier this month, Wells Dunbar, one of the publication’s regular columnists, described a City Council meeting where a very thorough presentation was given by Dianna Lewis, the director of the Texas chapter of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nonprofit organization.

When those who are wrestling with the homeless problem meet, “housing first” is always a topic of discussion. Seems like there wouldn’t be any reason for debate about such a basic notion. Homelessness is solved by getting people housed. The complications arise when individuals need so much more than a mere set of walls and a roof.

Many of the people experiencing homelessness have other issues too, such as addiction or mental illness. They don’t only need a place to sleep, but a way to deal with the problems that may have put them on the street in the first place. Some people will never be able to make it entirely on their own. They need permanent supportive housing, or PSH, which was the topic Lewis addressed. The ideal would be to provide leased rental units complete with treatment for medical health and mental health, along with the substance-abuse treatment if needed, and job training, if feasible.

Austin estimates that it needs nearly 2,000 such housing units, and the city passed a resolution last spring to get started on 350 of them. It’s going to cost a lot, not only to build these units, but to maintain them. This is where the expertise of Dianna Lewis comes in, when it’s time to explain how a lot of money will be saved in the long run. For instance, there will be many fewer calls for emergency medical services. Court costs and jail costs will be reduced.

Somebody has figured out that the 112 homeless people who most frequently use the emergency room run up more than $3 million worth of bills a year. Surely it would be a lot more economical to make more of an effort to keep them healthy in the first place. Like, for instance, to keep them out of the elements.

There is a lot more to it, of course, but this is the type of thing that cities need to be thinking about — the relative intelligence of spending an X number of dollars now, no matter how difficult those dollars are to come by, versus spending a Y number of dollars later, when the funding might be even more difficult to find. And, of course, no decisions should be made without input from the Austin Neighborhoods Council, because no plan for any project can work well without the support of the area residents.

In the course of discussing these matters in his column, Dunbar focused his attention on the work of Richard R. Troxell, House the Homeless, and the book that tells the whole story, Looking Up At The Bottom Line. The subtitle sums it up: “The struggle for the living wage.” It just may be that the answer lies between these covers — the Universal Living Wage.

So, a few days later, the “City Hall Hustle” column fondly recalled some of Troxell’s attention-getting episodes of street theater and guerilla political-education seminars. Dunbar related how House the Homeless worked for years to modify Austin’s anti-loitering ordinance, which just doesn’t work for people who are experiencing disabilities as well as homelessness. Finally, the group exerted enough influence to get a medical exception written into the “no sit/no lie” rule.

The columnist also gave Richard the opportunity to explain how the Universal Living Wage is different from — and better than — the federal government’s minimum wage:

‘The book is a vehicle for us to talk about the real impact of not addressing the economic situation that’s leading so many people into homelessness,’ Troxell says. With its ‘one-size-fits-all approach,’ vis-à-vis the minimum wage, he says, ‘the federal government is the greatest creator of homelessness in this nation.’

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Source: “City Hall Hustle: Home Away From Home,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/08/10
Source: “City Hall Hustle: Across The Universe,” The Austin Chronicle, 10/15/10
Image by ret0dd, used under its Creative Commons license.