Imagine Austin's Future
Imagine Austin's Future

How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan

How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan

Richard Troxel, an Austin resident, is author of Looking up at the Bottom Line: The struggle for the living wage! He has been striving to end homelessness for 30 years. He sits on the Executive Committee of the National Coalition for the Homeless and advocates as National Chairman of the Universal Living Wage Campaign. He contributes this guest essay as part of CultureMap's Imagine Austin's Future series.

My vision for Austin is a community without homelessness. 

There will be 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness again in America in 2012. In Austin we have counted 4,000 people experiencing homelessness. At the same time, we have only a little over 600 emergency shelter beds for those men, women and children. We have all played musical chairs, musical beds are no less daunting. 

In response, House the Homeless, Inc., has stepped up to fill the void left by the City of Austin. Every November now, for 20 years, we have met on Auditorium Shores and read the names of the men, women and children who have died while living on the streets of Austin. Last year, we read the names of another 138 people.

 For those who can work, we need to fix the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW, currently $7.25 per hour) because as it stands now, a person can work a full time job and still not be able to afford basic rental housing either in Austin or any city in the U.S. 

At the close of the memorial service, we launch our Thermal Underwear Drive. We scramble for the next 30 days to raise $20,000 to outfit those failed musical bed players so they can brace against the fast approaching winter. This year we distributed 3,500 pieces of thermal underwear and winter clothing. It seems overwhelming. But, is it not the role of government to take care of its people?

About 12 years ago, advocates organized to create and pass housing bonds. After about ten years, the bonds were passed and money for 350 units of housing was set aside for people experiencing homelessness.  Only about a third of this housing has been created. Do the math. How many decades to house 4,000 people at that rate?

Recently, House the Homeless conducted a health survey interviewing 501 people experiencing homelessness. We asked if anyone had a physical condition that was so severe that it prevented them from working. Half of them (48 percent) said yes.

Respondents listed, diabetes, congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, etc. The list goes on and on.

This discovery led House the Homeless to promote changes to the Austin’s No Sit/No Lie Ordinance that fines people experiencing homelessness up to $500 for sitting or lying down. After a year, we forced a compromise giving people with disabilities up to 30 minute respites in deference to their medical needs. As a result, in 2011, Austin became the first city in the nation to bring our No Sit/No Lie ordinance in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perhaps now we can simply install enough benches for folks to sit down in a civilized fashion and thereby inch closer to becoming the world class city that we aspire to be.

The survey results caused us to think about people experiencing homelessness in a different light. We now see that they can simply be divided into two camps: Those who can work and those who cannot.

We quickly realized that for those who can work, we need to fix the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW, currently $7.25 per hour) because as it stands now, a person can work a full time job and still not be able to afford basic rental housing either in Austin or any city in the U.S.

By simply indexing  the FMW to the local cost of housing using HUD Fair Market Rents, we ensure that anyone working 40 hours in a week will be able to afford basic rental housing (including utilities) in Austin or wherever that work is done throughout the U.S.  Obviously, this is good for the individual, but it is also good for business as it stabilizes both the worker and the job by dramatically reducing the retraining costs associated with destabilized workers.

 Many people experiencing homelessness and many people in the general population suffer from alcoholism costing... trillions of dollars in health care costs, lost productivity and human and family suffering. 

This new wage approach, which we call the Universal Living Wage (ULW), will also stimulate the local/national construction industry. These homeless workers will finally be able to afford basic rental housing which the construction industry will gladly build in response. This change will occur slowly over ten years so as not to hurt business. Furthermore, from a historical perspective, every minimum wage increase is spent right back into the economy, so this will stimulate the economy generally too. The ULW will end homelessness for over 2,000 minimum wage workers in Austin and over 1,000,000 workers nationwide. 

For those who cannot work, we need to fix the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) support program which is $698 per month (only about half of the FMW), and therefore clearly too little to house anyone.  To this end, we can address the SSI on a national level by indexing it to the local cost of housing as well. But this time the onus will be on taxpayers to foot the bill as opposed to the business community. They say a people are judged by how we respond to our neediest citizens.  Housing them is a good start.

Many people experiencing homelessness and many people in the general population suffer from alcoholism costing the Austin community, the State of Texas and our nation’s economy, trillions of dollars in health care costs, lost productivity and human and family suffering.

The alcohol industry has always been resistant to paying a percentage of its profits to cover the lost revenues. They rightfully resist stepping out on a “slippery slope” where this year they may be asked to pay on-half of one percent of profit only to see that percentage increased by one percent next year and two the next, etc. 

We can help address these concerns by looking at alcoholism as a product liability issue. When we purchase alcohol at the grocery checkout counter, the liquor store or bar, there is no alarm that sounds indicting that a particular purchaser will have an adverse medical reaction to their product. However, there will be many who suffer long-term negative consequences from the use of their product. We want to take the “slippery slope” out of the equation and simply hold the seller of the product responsible for only the damages incurred.

The alcohol industry grosses upwards of $120 billion dollars per year. Alcoholism makes up one-quarter of all emergency room costs. Alcohol is involved in one-third of all traffic fatalities. Alcohol costs American productivity $185 billion dollars each year, but zero dollars go to substance abuse treatment.

By simply dividing the very specific treatment costs among those that profit from the sale of alcohol, the cost may amount to less than one cent per item. In this fashion, there is no longer a “slippery slope,” there is no longer a “contrived” percentage of increase in costs to the industry beyond the actual cost to provide treatment for people who have suffered an adverse reaction to their product.

In overview, we can see that with clear vision, new perspective and collectively involving the city, the citizens of Austin, federal and state governments and the business community in a fair, equitable, balanced and profitable fashion, we can end homelessness as it exists today.

Austin_Photo_Set: News_Kevin_Troxell homelessness_Jan 2012_homeless woman
Austin_Photo: News_Kevin_Troxell book_Feb 2012
Richard Troxell's Looking up at the bottom line Courtesy of Richard Troxell