Many previous attempts to eradicate homelessness in Austin had failed over the decades, in spite of the effort of many different actors. Homelessness was on the rise and a lack of resources, coordination and accountability amongst city departments had led to a failure to meet Austin's needs for dealing with homelessness
In Austin, homelessness is an increasingly visible issue. In 2018, there were 2,147 homeless people in the city – 111 more than the year before. However, the exact number of homeless in Austin is unknown, and different estimates exist. For example, there were 5,949 individuals who used a shelter in 2017, and Central Health, a “local public entity that connects low-income, uninsured Travis County residents to high-quality, cost-effective healthcare”, has identified over 10,000 individuals experiencing homelessness who have used their service over the course of a year.
Since 1985, the city of Austin, together with many other public and not-for-profit entities, has made many failed attempts to fight, address and ultimately end homelessness. According to a report issued by the Office of the City Auditor in 2017, it was found that “at least 20 city departments are involved with or impacted by the issue of homelessness”. Further, they found that a lack of coordination, accountability and resources had led to a failure to meet Austin's needs for dealing with homelessness.
Providers are therefore seeking better ways to coordinate help and resources, for fear that the involvement of many different actors serves only to manage homelessness without solving it. “People keep getting sucked up in the system. They go from place to place and get the services they need, but they've given up any hope of ever getting out of the system.”
One reason why previous attempts to end homelessness have been unsuccessful may be because individuals who have experienced homelessness have not been involved in the design of services or policies aimed at them. Another is the failure to recognise that homelessness is not only a problem for the individual but one that affects the entire community. According to Austin’s chief innovation officer, Kerry O’Connor: “until you understand the lived experience of people and can bring that qualitative information in, you’re always going to be flying with a skewed radar that’s sending you in a slightly off direction.”
A new approach to combating homelessness in Austin was sorely needed. In order to better coordinate efforts and understand the need for services and new policies regarding the homeless, the Office of Innovation formed a committee consisting of people who had been or were currently homeless – the AHAC.
In October 2017, the Office of Innovation launched the Austin Homelessness Advisory Committee, AHAC. Its purpose was to involve the homeless community and seek their input on, for example, the type of services that should be provided and the policy issues regarding homelessness. The Office of Innovation secured funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies to employ an in-house innovation team – the iTeam – to think of new ways to tackle homelessness, and AHAC was part of that overall approach. The purpose of the total grant is to “add an innovation capacity to a city”, and Austin was selected by Bloomberg from a pool of municipalities “with a demonstrated commitment to designing and delivering bold solutions to solve homelessness”.
AHAC members are people with lived experience of homelessness, and the iTeam acts as facilitators of their meetings, as well as providing project management and research skills. The iTeam also collaborates closely with staff from Austin Public Health and the not-for-profit, Ending Community Homeless Coalition (ECHO), to deliver the AHAC, especially in recruiting new members.
AHAC started as a 6-month pilot project with 13 members, all of whom had at some time experienced homelessness. They meet every other week for two hours at a local library. The purpose of the meetings is “to help with the development of research tools, consult on findings, and test possible solutions”. They receive a USD40 gift card in return for their time and insights on issues like begging, outreach and interactions with police. By March 2018, the group had grown to 16 members with a 90 percent attendance rate for each meeting.
The role of the Advisory Committee is “to have conversations, share stories, and provide feedback to:
- “Educate and inform policymakers on the realities of homelessness, including disability, mental health, substance use disorder, and other issues faced by individuals who are homeless
- “Obtain feedback on current services and resources for persons experiencing homelessness
- “Better understand the realities of homelessness and to inform the improvement of services
- “To inform the design of materials and outreach for individuals experiencing homeless.”(see source , slide no. 7)
The public impact
The AHAC quickly became popular amongst city agencies, who appreciated being able to collect feedback and views on proposals, procedures and services related to homelessness directly from the service users themselves. The AHAC group was also successful in creating ideas on their own that had an positive impact on the homeless, as well as creating a better self-esteem amongst the members.
Many city agencies in Austin have used the AHAC for input and feedback. For example, the Office of the City Auditor is incorporating the committee’s insights into an upcoming report on homelessness, and the Office of Police Oversight has asked it to help ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness have access to the police complaints process. AHAC has offered feedback on proposed changes to the city’s laws on begging and the redesign of shelter services at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. It has also participated in a hackathon aimed at using blockchain technology to store ID information that homeless people need in order to access services. “The input we got via the iTeam was really eye-opening,” said the interim assistant city manager in Austin, Sara Hensley.
In addition to providing feedback and insight to city agencies, committee members have come up with ideas of their own. For example, two AHAC members created a plan to deliver travel-sized toiletries to people on the street, to avoid the problem of carrying around large, heavy bottles that often leak. The organising team at the Office of Innovation helped them prototype the idea, filling a rolling suitcase with travel-sized shampoos, deodorants, soaps, insect repellents, and sunscreens to give away. The group has also produced a 16-page "Coping Skills Zine" which is filled with peer-to-peer insights, and a "public engagement guide" poster that explains "how to help people experiencing homelessness, as alternatives to doing nothing or donating to panhandlers [beggars]".
This opportunity for Austin’s homeless to participate in the debate and decisions relevant to people in their situation has also given them a sense of purpose and has benefited how they view themselves. “It means someone in my situation can be heard,” said a AHAC member. “I’m not just a statistic. It gives me a level of esteem, value and importance. And it’s woken the city up to understand just how many of us there are.”
This case study was written by Linnéa Larsson
Public Confidence N/A
There was not enough evidence to make a comprehensive assessment of public confidence in the AHAC or the iTeam. However, there is evidence that the public endorses Mayor Adler’s overall effort to reduce homelessness. "The community wants bigger, more effective and more immediate responses to Austin's homelessness challenge and the council needs to act," Mayor Adler said in early 2019. He was first elected as Mayor of Austin in 2015, and was re-elected in November 2018, getting 61 percent of the vote.[x] In his first term, Adler had led a successful “ending veteran homelessness” campaign, which started a wider effort against homelessness in Austin, according to Ann Howard, executive director of ECHO, who publicly supported Adler’s re-election campaign.
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
All the key stakeholders – project participants, partners and funders – have been supportive of the project because they receive mutual benefit from it and share a common goal: they are all striving to increase the coordination and effectiveness of service provision as it relates to homelessness. It is, of course, in all of their interest to find out if their efforts are successful. Specifically, the stakeholders are keen to ensure that the resources given to the homeless are spent on the services that are most needed, and the stakeholders agree that it makes sense to seek input from the endusers when designing services for them. The iTeam itself understood this clearly: “’we started, as an IT company would, by talking to the users. Which had never been done in a deliberate and systematic way before,’ said iTeam project manager Taylor Cook.”
The organisers of the AHAC engaged stakeholders during its formation – they recruited its members with the assistance of local service providers, who referred potential candidates to them. Further, in a published research plan, the iTeam refers to the importance of engaging stakeholders. “Homelessness can be a very sensitive topic and it is imperative that the iTeam conduct discovery activities with transparency, a high-level of stakeholder engagement, and opportunities for feedback. It is also important that the project delivers value quickly, so that the iTeam’s work is relevant to stakeholders in a very dynamic environment.”
Political Commitment Strong
There is significant political commitment for combating homelessness in Austin, and the current mayor, Steve Adler, has made it a priority. “Austin City Council has made addressing homelessness a high priority because so many members of the public have told their council members they want to see more done about it.” He is also supportive of the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant that enabled the iTeam to manage the AHAC. ‘This grant will help us tackle problems in new ways that reflect who we are in Austin, and I’m excited to see what can come from this. When we effectively ended veteran homelessness, we learned how effective new partnerships between the business community, philanthropists and non-profits could be. Bloomberg’s grant will allow our Innovation Office to experiment with new ways to house the homeless.’
Clear Objectives Strong
The objectives of the AHAC are clearly stated on the project’s website:
- “Educate and inform policymakers on the realities of homelessness, including disabilities, mental health, substance use disorder, and other issues faced by individuals who are homeless.
- “Obtain feedback on current services and resources for people experiencing homelessness.
- “To better understand the realities of homelessness and to inform the improvement of services.
- “To inform the design of materials and outreach for people experiencing homelessness.”
In addition, more specific goals of the group are also listed in an iTeam research plan:
- Share knowledge and experience to frame problems
- Recruit additional AHAC members
- Advise on how to recruit research participants
- Advise on research activities and interview questions by helping the iTeam determine what is realistic and appropriate to ask of a research participant
- Review things the team creates (e.g. flyers) to clarify and identify what would resonate
- Dispel myths about homelessness
- Brainstorm prevention models for homelessness
- Brainstorm solutions for people experiencing homelessness
- Test concepts and solutions for people experiencing homelessness. (See source , paragraph 4.2)
The iTeam drew on knowledge both from past experience of similar committees and from existing design techniques that had been shown to be successful in the private sector, making the evidence base for AHAC strong. 
The AHAC itself began as a 6-month pilot, and the iTeam committed to continue with it, depending on its success and progress.(see source , slide 6) Specifically, the iTeam drew on evidence from cities that have established homelessness councils made up of members who have experienced homelessness themselves, namely Nashville, TN, Olympia, WA and Quebec in Canada.(see source , slides 72, 73 and 79).
The iTeam also drew on evidence from a human-centred design process when coming up with the idea of the group. The design principle is that “the people you’re designing for are deeply involved in every step of creation – from the initial research into defining a problem, to creating solutions and then testing and implementing them.”
Thanks to adequate grant funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies and a sufficient number of staff employed, feasibility of the project was good. However, initially it was difficult to get the group working well together due to the many problems the members were facing in their life, such as mental health and addiction issues.
The project is supported by the city of Austin and a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, together covering the total cost of the AHAC project, which is USD27,720 per year.(see source , slide 57) A total of ten iTeam members are employed under the Office of Innovation, including the chief innovation officer. Their expertise ranges from project management, research, service design, and data analysis to content strategy, and they work on “understanding and designing solutions for homelessness”, which is a broader research project funded by a three-year, USD1.25 million dollar grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The AHAC is part of this larger project.
However, feasibility was threatened in the early stages due to the nature of the project, which is to bring together a group of individuals experiencing homelessness, some of whom had mental health and addiction problems, and all of them felt let down by the system that was supposed to help them. The first six months were challenging, with many arguments and fights between members. Kerry O’Connor was initially uncertain whether the project was feasible. “We’re trying to talk with them about generating ideas for the future, when everybody has an immediate crisis. It’s a focus group of people who society has marginalised and judged. At first, I didn’t know if it was going to work.” It took about six months to get the AHAC members to work well together and be able to offer useful advice. This was made possible thanks to the facilitators, who gradually found ways to steer the group away from arguments, by dividing the members into smaller groups and using techniques such as role-playing as a way to share experiences.
The AHAC has a strong management structure thanks to an organised system of day-to-day management by the iTeam paired with a wider network of project partners who help with for example recruitment, or are responsible for final sign off on project decisions based on the iTeams recommendations.
The AHAC is managed by the iTeam staff, who are also called the Core Team. They work on the project as project managers, researchers and data analysts. They also act as facilitators of the AHAC, which can be a difficult balancing act. “On the one hand, they need to offer members the emotional support needed to provide productive feedback. On the other hand, they’re not staffed to provide case management for people living in crisis.”
In turn, the Core Team interacts with several partners of service providers and other organisations involved in homelessness issues. Their three groups of partners are called the Awareness Group, the Executive Team and the Project Partners. The Awareness Group consists of “anyone who may be interested in the progress of the project, including city staff, and members of the public”. The Executive Team on the other hand is “a small group of individuals, primarily city leadership, who have the final sign-off on project decisions based on the core team’s recommendations”. They receive a weekly progress report. Finally, the Project Partners are “subject-matter experts relevant to the project who help the Core Team identify and connect with research participants and other experts. Current Project Partners are Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST), the Dell Medical School, and the AHAC.”
The person ultimately responsible for the AHAC group and the iTeam’s other projects is Kerry O’Connor. The iTeam holds weekly meetings with her and the project partners.(see source , paragraph 5.2) However, in February 2019, the oversight of the AHAC was transferred from the Innovation Office to the Austin Downtown Community Court. This is a court that mainly handles cases related to offences committed by people who are homeless, like begging and outdoor camping, with the aim of avoiding punishment and instead connecting people with clinical social workers.
There is not enough evidence to make a comprehensive assessment of measurement in the AHAC or the iTeam.
The iTeam has a project plan for the overall research project, of which the AHAC is one part. Under impact deliverables, the project plan states that “since the iTeam is still in discovery and has not identified ideas, it is not possible to identify the impact metrics for this project yet. However, we can anticipate action from stakeholders and the city of Austin based on the planned deliverables. When that stage is realised in early 2018 it will be possible to identify impact metrics based on the actions taken.” Impact metrics have not been published online since then, however, so it is not possible to determine if or what specific metrics are used to measure the project’s progress.
Alignment of stakeholders of this project is strong, thanks to the clear mechanism of communication set up with different partner groups (see Management above). The Awareness Group attends monthly reviews to receive progress updates. The Executive Team receives regular progress reports from the iTeam, and the Project Partners are involved as a result of recommendations from AHAC members.
Further, alignment between the members of the committee has become strong over time due to the firm bond that has evolved between them. After the uncertain start with fights and arguments, the group has now found more efficient ways to communicate with each other. “Over time, shared experiences of suffering and loss have turned the advisory committee into a tight-knit group. Members talk to each other via a closed Facebook group, and regularly turn to one another for advice on how to navigate the system and access services.”