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'This is not just four walls' | Austin's homeless strategy officer talks hotels, what's next

Dianna Grey began her role as the City of Austin's homeless strategy officer about one month ago.

AUSTIN, Texas — One day after the Austin City Council voted to buy a fourth hotel to house people experiencing homelessness, the City of Austin hosted a Q&A with newly-appointed Homeless Strategy Office Dianna Grey. 

The City named Grey to the position in late December and she began her role on Jan. 4. According to the City, Grey coordinates the homeless response activities among multiple departments to "ensure a seamless approach and response."

At the start of Friday's Q&A, Grey said that she has been doing affordable housing work and "work in the area of homelessness" for about 20 years and she is a 30-year Austinite.

Read the questions and Grey's answers below:

Are there any cities you can point to which represent best practices on how to address the growing homelessness problem? Are there any cities that represent a model to which Austin should strive?

"Sure. So many, many cities across the U.S. have made great strides in this area. But I think probably the most relevant for us is the work that has been done in Houston. They, between 2011 and 2019, decreased their homeless count by 50%. So, the context is very similar. The resources are similar. We have a lot to learn from them and have already begun implementing some of those same strategies."

What are some ways the City could prohibit camping in a particular area without relying on policing or issuing citations?

"Sure. So, when an area is designated as a non-camping area, there are a lot of proactive strategies we can take that really aren't coercive. So, first of all, is communication. Of course, they're signing – signage, excuse me. But one of the things that we have found in our own experience and in other cities is that that continued outreach and engagement by service providers around that site can be really effective at reinforcing the message and also making it well known enough that there begins to be some word of mouth among people experiencing homelessness, which is a very strong channel of communication in our communities, community, and in most communities. I think we also look to the built environment. We look to activities in those spaces. Certainly part of our charge under the HEAL initiative is to come back to [the] council with our best ideas around that. And so, we look forward to giving some report on staff research and, and recommendations come March."

Will opening one hotel in every district be enough to house the city's homeless population or will more need to be done?

"I'm glad you asked that because I think that we need to understand that there are many strategies for ending homelessness and hotel conversion is just one of them. We have rapid rehousing, which provides temporary rental assistance to folks who are renting apartments across the city. And permanent supportive housing, which is largely what we're using the hotels for, is a very targeted intervention for that small but persistent sort of group of people experiencing homelessness who really need long-term housing with lots of rental support and probably, more importantly, robust services that help them maintain their housing stability."

What resources will be provided at the hotels so that homeless citizens can get back on their feet?

"Absolutely. Thank you. And I think so, in particular, the hotels that had just been approved will be permanent supportive housing. And, in those settings, we have robust onsite services. So, there are case managers that are in contact with tenants making themselves available every day to assist them in any number of ways: providing access to mental health services, transportation resources and, really, just kind of working through the challenges of reestablishing that stability in their own homes. So, I think it really is key to understand that this is not just four walls, but we are really providing the support and services there that will be needed for folks to stay housed and to truly exit their homelessness."

Mayor Adler has said the City needs a clear and detailed plan with benchmarks so citizens know when to expect results. What goals and timelines have you set to measure success?

"So, as you may have heard, we anticipate a community planning process, an intensive community planning process, to take place over the coming weeks. And our goal as a community there is to come out with broadly shared goals around increasing capacity in a number of areas. We know we need more shelter beds. We need more rapid rehousing. We know we need more permanent supportive housing. And so, the idea there is that there are shared commitments to the creation of that capacity. But within that, it would be really important that council and our division identify very clearly what our production goals are and that we're held accountable to those over the coming months."

Is there anything that you read in the HEAL initiative that would lead you to believe the City could intend to reintroduce the criminalization of camping?

"I think that the language of the HEAL initiative resolution as adopted and the message from the dais have been very clear: That the charge to my division is to, first and most importantly, connect people with housing resources, dedicated housing resources, and also to come up with effective strategies as an alternative to recriminalization."

RELATED: Austin City Council votes to approve purchase of Candlewood Suites hotel

Will there be future collaboration with local and State officials?

"Absolutely. And I think it's important to know that there already is collaboration. As an example, [the] Texas Department of Health has had a very effective program over the past seven years called Healthy Community Collaborative, in which services are funded in local cities for people who are experiencing both homelessness and living with a mental health diagnosis. Those funds have been critical to our work in Austin, as they have been in other cities. And that is a program, I think, that really should be expanded. And we look forward to partnering with the State on that front."

What plan does the City have to help the portion of our unhoused community that does not want supportive services?

"So, first of all, I will say that while some people experiencing homelessness may initially be reticent about engaging with service providers, building the trust with those individuals is almost always successful. So, we meet folks where they are. We continue to reach out and build those relationships, and then we provide those options to people as they are ready to accept them. And again, our experience is when doing street outreach, for example, [it] may take a while to develop that relationship but, fundamentally, people want housing and they acknowledge when they need supports."

How is the City prepared to deal with individuals who refuse to leave the campsites?

"The HEAL initiative doesn't really change anything about the ability to enforce existing camping ban. What it does is direct us to be more thoughtful and more intentional about ways that we can connect folks to housing who are in unsafe encampments and provide those alternatives to, to citations or enforcement by the police."

At recent protests, we heard from neighbors who worry about safety when living near the hotels. As part of your new role, are you working to end stigmas toward the homeless community and better create an understanding for them and how they lost their homes? And if so, how?

"Absolutely. So, I think that it's absolutely clear to us that we need to be more assertive about communicating with our citizens about what the experience of homelessness is but also what the solutions are and what that looks like in their neighborhoods and with their neighbors who will at that point have exited homelessness. So, that will be something that we roll out over the coming months. In particular, I think we are aware of the need to work very, very closely with our council members when there are proposed developments in their districts and being available as staff to provide as much information as needed."

RELATED: 'We don't know what the plan is' | Neighbors, businesses push back against hotels to house the homeless

What can the City do to ensure the homeless community gets access to COVID-19 vaccines?

"Absolutely. So, as you know, as a community, our access to vaccines has been limited, as it is everywhere. But we will be working with our provider partners to identify ways that we can get that vaccine to people who are experiencing homelessness. We have a health care for the homeless clinic within CommUnityCare. And so, they are going to be just a very important resource in identifying the channels we use to get that vaccine to homeless individuals, particularly those who are in Phase 1A or 1B and are vulnerable to the virus."

Does the City intend to go against CDC guidelines and displace people camping in places where that behavior is prohibited, such as in parks?

"So, so far, the City has really made an effort to comply with those CDC guidelines and, and to avoid clearing encampments, except in cases where there is a clear and present danger to health or safety. And so, I do want to point out that the idea behind the HEAL initiative is not just to clear encampments, it is to engage actively with people living in encampments and provide them access to shelter, temporary housing and permanent housing, all of which are the most effective guards against the transmission of the coronavirus.

RELATED: City leaders pass HEAL initiative, partially reinstating the homeless camping ban

How does the City plan to show Austinites the progress and benefit of the purchase of hotels?

"Absolutely. So, you know, we have a great community in ECHO, who is the nonprofit that leads our local homeless coalition, and one of their key roles is data that tracks our outcomes. So, we're going to be able to show the number of individuals in that housing who are able to stay housed over the course of a year and future years. And we're also often able to demonstrate that, once stabilized, people's need for emergency room services, EMS, etc, really decreases. So, we look forward to sharing that data with the community as we move forward."

We've been told that homelessness is not an issue the City and nonprofits can solve on their own. Do you agree? And if so, how do we increase or expand community investment?

"Absolutely. And I think I want to be clear, too, that while the City of Austin is probably the largest investor in homeless services at present, there are already many partners at the table, including Travis County, Central Health, the State and our philanthropic community. What we need to do, I think, is be more strategic about identifying the best ways for both collaboration and financial resources to come to the table so that we are truly all pulling toward the same goal. We hope that the summit next, in the coming weeks will really help us define that and improve our collaboration and expand our resources."

Do you believe the sanctioned campsites that are being considered should be considered as housing options in the HEAL initiative? Why or why not?

"So, I do want to be clear about the difference between housing and temporary shelter. Our goal, always, is to end homelessness for individuals and move them into permanently stable place to live. In the interim, because we know we have such a large unsheltered population, absolutely we will be looking at our options. However, City staff previously have not recommended sanctioned encampments as when compared to other sheltering alternatives. Staff is happy to take a look at that again, but we want to make sure that we choose the strategies that are most effective and that are right for our community and for our neighbors experiencing homelessness."

Does the City of Austin have vacant land and/or buildings that they could use to help the homeless? If so, will you consider that as a possibility?

"Absolutely. Consider any buildings or land held by anyone that can be utilized to address this problem. The City does, of course, have some land and some buildings. We review those periodically to understand whether they are appropriate for use for our intended purposes, whether that is a short-term shelter or long-term housing. But just know that that is a part of our process, ongoing, and we look for those opportunities wherever we can find them."

RELATED: City certifies Save Austin Now petition to get camping ban item on May ballot

Is the City preparing in the event that voters will reinstate the camping ban in May? And if so, how?

"I would say is that, from my perspective, my division's core work is the same, regardless of what happens with the camping ban locally or at the State level. Our goal and what the community truly needs is strategies to permanently house folks and strategies to provide more humane conditions until people get into permanent housing."

Is there a time limit or goal of how long someone should be allowed to stay in one of the transitional housing rooms in the transitional housing hotels? Or have you tracked how many have moved into permanent housing? Is moving people from transitional housing into permanent housing the end goal?

"So, first of all, I want to clarify that at present, the hotels that we own and are leasing are all being utilized for the purposes of providing protective lodging for people who are vulnerable to coronavirus and experiencing homelessness or isolation facilities for those who have been exposed or may actually have tested, tested positive for the virus. So, they are not really transitional housing. They are a public health, a public health intervention. And the idea is that so long as the pandemic is active, that protective lodging would be available. However, [it] is absolutely our goal to help people who have experienced homelessness find permanent housing from the ProLodges in particular. And we've had some really great success. We were able to secure federal resources through the Cares Act late last year. And since then, we've found permanent housing for 150 people."

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