House the Heroes: Mayor’s Challenge to End Homelessness

House the Heroes: Mayor’s Challenge to End Homelessness

by Elizabeth McGuire

Since October 2014, Austin mayors (first Lee Leffingwell and now Steve Adler) have been part of a nationwide movement to end veteran homelessness. Austin’s city leaders are working toward this goal by using an innovative strategy that Adler calls a perfect triangle of landlords, business leaders and community service providers.

Along with the mayor’s office, the initiative is comprised of several local organizations, including ECHO, Caritas, Front Steps, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Austin Board of REALTORS ® and Austin Apartment Association.

RMA-8127Their long-term goal is to build a sustainable system of collaboration between government entities, nonprofit organizations and the business sector. Short term they aim to house more than 200 veterans by Veterans Day 2015. Although they are approximately halfway toward their housing goal, the initiative has already exceeded fundraising goals.

The system is designed to identify homeless veterans, find available housing, remove the financial risk for landlords, and support the veterans with the social services they may need to maintain housing.

Finding the housing units has proved the greatest challenge. According to Earl Jones (Emerge 2014), Capacity Building Coordinator with the mayor’s office, part of the process is educating landlords and convincing them that the program is secure and sustainable. “Some landlords are hesitant to take a financial risk,” he said, “but the leases are guaranteed by a fund that is managed by the Austin Community Foundation.” Organizers are encouraging landlords to be more flexible with their screening criteria–to waive a large deposit or overlook poor rental history–and to trust the safeguards that the project has established.

homeless-vet2The Austin Board of REALTORS® Foundation donated $5,000 toward the fund to ensure sustainability of the program, including housing repairs and other costs. ABoR’s Chief Executive Officer, Paul Hilgers (Essential 1987), said his organization has been involved with the initiative since the beginning and that the work has been a natural extension for its membership. “While our members always go above and beyond,” he said, “we have been impressed by the great length some of our members in property management have gone through to make sure this initiative is a success.”

Ann Howard of Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) explained that low inventory has been an obstacle. “Progress has been hindered by Austin’s very tight housing market, but we are continuing to find apartments and to house veterans. Many people had no idea it would be this hard, but when you’re working with a more than 95% occupied housing market, it’s a multi-step process. Often we are working with property owners to identify units and leases that may become vacant soon.”

City leaders agree it’s worth every effort to be patient and to keep the steady momentum going. “From our experience, most people who get housing will want to maintain it and will seek the treatment or services necessary to keep it,” said Howard. “Statistics show that 85% of the homeless lifted off the streets will stay housed. Life is better when you sleep inside and have a restroom. Our goal is simple: get people into safe housing and help them maintain it.”

The project’s key players all agree that the greatest reward has been the collaboration and community created.

The project is bringing together organizations in spirit and in practical terms, including many groups that have not historically worked together. For this project, the non-profits serving the homeless are now working off one database and meeting weekly to exchange updates on the various cases they are managing.

Jan Gunter, Communications and Community Relations Director of the Salvation Army, says having a shared goal with so many different entities has been valuable. “The collaborative efforts really do pay off,” she said. “The Salvation Army is honored to participate and bring our resources to the table–along with so many others who are doing the same–to meet the needs of the most vulnerable populations in our prosperous city.”

The most consistent message from every participating organization: it’s inspiring to see government and businesses work together toward social innovation. This housing initiative, they insist, should be hailed as a model for how to address ongoing challenges in Austin.

As Hilgers said, “It’s always inspiring to see different entities of our great city come together to make change happen.”

How You Can Help

You can help ensure that our homeless veterans and their families have safe and accessible housing. Join the many community leaders who have already donated their time and resources to this important initiative.