Dianna Grey 'shares urgency' of community to end homelessness in Austin
The work of the City of Austin’s Homeless Strategy Office will stay focused on housing homeless Austinites regardless of what happens with attempts to reinstate public camping bans, the new Homeless Strategy Officer has said.
Dianna Grey, who started in her role about 30 days ago, told a virtual media Q&A on Friday, Feb. 5: “My division’s core work is the same regardless of what happens with the camping ban, at the local or the state level. Our goal, and what the community truly needs, are strategies to permanently house folks and strategies to provide more humane conditions until people get into permanent housing.”
Grey, who has lived in Austin for three decades and has 20 years’ experience working in affordable housing and homelessness, said: “I share the urgency that I know all Austinites are feeling around this issue and the dedication to solving this in our city. One of the things I want to make clear is we have a lot of strengths in this community. I think we have largely shared values around how we want to help our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness.”
She added: “We have some very effective non-profit service providers, but we are now at a point where we really need to come to scale. I view my role as Homeless Strategy Officer as helping the city identify the strategies that are right for our community, working to ensure that during implementation we are a great partner to our service providers and housing developers, and also ensuring that all of the departments at the City involved in this work are coordinating well.”
View Dianna Grey's full Media Q&A HERE.
Asked which US cities Austin was looking to for inspiration, Grey cited Houston, which she said had “made great strides” in reducing its homeless count by 50% over an eight-year period. “We have a lot to learn from them and have already begun to implement some of those same strategies,” she said.
HEAL Initiative To Engage People Living in Encampments
On Thursday, Feb. 4, the Homeless Strategy Office was directed by Council as part of the Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative to report back in March with new recommendations to help people experiencing homelessness move out of encampments and into housing with support services.
While the initiative did not alter the enforcement of existing camping rules, Grey said, it did direct City staff to be “more intentional about ways we can connect folks to housing who are in unsafe encampments and provide those alternatives to citations or enforcement by the police”.
This would involve engaging actively with people living in encampments and providing them access to shelter, temporary housing and permanent housing. Grey pointed out that there were a number of ways to tackle encampments without resorting to citations or arrests.
“When an area is designated as a non-camping area there are a lot of proactive strategies that we can take that aren’t coercive,” she said. “First of all there is communication, signage. We have found that continued outreach and engagement by service providers around a site can be really effective at enforcing the message and also making it well known enough that there is word of mouth among people experiencing homelessness, which is a very strong channel of communication in our community and most communities.”
While some people experiencing homelessness may initially be reticent about engaging with service providers, building trust with those individuals was “almost always successful” in the end, Grey said. “We meet folks where they are, we continue to reach out and build relationships, and then we provide those options to people as they are ready to accept them. Our experiences doing street outreach is that it may take a while to develop that relationship but fundamentally people want housing and they acknowledge when they need support.”
Grey reiterated the City’s commitment to complying with Centers for Disease Control guidelines to allow people who are living unsheltered, or in encampments, to remain where they are during COVID-19, to minimize community spread of the disease and maximize access to services. However, exceptions would continue to be made “in cases where there is a clear and present danger to health or safety”.
The City would “look again” at the idea of creating sanctioned encampments, Grey said, but noted that such proposals had not previously been recommended by staff. “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,” she said.
Converting Hotels for Housing
Grey explained that the City’s “hotel conversion strategy” involved purchasing hotels and converting them for use as permanent supportive housing, as “a very targeted intervention for that small but persistent group of people experiencing homelessness who really need long term housing with lots of rental support and most importantly robust services that help them maintain housing stability”.
She continued: “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 working through the challenges of reestablishing that stability on their own homes. It’s really key to understand this is not just four walls – we are providing the support and services there that really will be needed for folks to stay housed and truly exit their homelessness.”
Grey said the City looked forward to participating in a forthcoming community summit addressing homelessness challenges in Austin, organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance and Austin Chamber of Commerce, among others.
“We anticipate an intensive community planning process to take place over the coming weeks and our goal as a community is to come out with broadly shared goals around increasing capacity in a number of areas,” she said. “We know we need more shelter beds, we know we need more rapid rehousing, we know we need more Permanent Supportive Housing. There are shared commitments to the creation of that capacity. Within that it will be very important that Council and the City identify very clearly what our production goals are, and that we’re held accountable to those over the coming months.”