Austin’s Fox News 7 recently reported that there is a discrepancy between the Point in Time (PIT) count numbers which show that in January 2023 the Austin homeless population was nearly 2,300 while the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS)’s numbers were closer to 6,600. The difference between these counts comes from how the information is collected.

For the PIT count, volunteers are assigned geographic locations around the city and physically count the number of homeless individuals they can see. The obvious flaw here is that there are some groups like those camping deep in greenbelt areas, those sleeping in cars in parking lots, or those in abandoned buildings that are not immediately visible. On the other hand, the HMIS records and registers those looking for services. This captures a larger number of homeless persons, but fails to include those who are not seeking services or who do not qualify for services. Anecdotally, there are law enforcement individuals who attend to camps around the city who say the number may even be closer to 10,000.

The point is that by their nature, homeless counts produce varying results because their methodology and operationalization differ substantially. There are people moving in and out of homelessness and there are some people who do not match the McKinney-Vento definition—for example, a single mother with children fleeing domestic violence who is offered a place to stay with friends is not a part of that count even though they are without a home of their own. Regardless of this discrepancy in reporting, those living in Austin and the surrounding area can see with their own eyes the problem is getting worse.

Sheltered or unsheltered, these people are without places of their own and we, as a society, originally founded on Judeo-Christian ideals of private charity and family values, believe it is our duty to help those less fortunate than we are. Out of that compassion, we have allowed governments to commit public monies to the cause; however, there are growing and legitimate concerns that those funds are being misspent or abused.

Consider the City of Austin, which seems to be out of ideas and is failing this population. Homeless strategy officer David Gray is quoted in the article saying that “While 60 percent of the people who leave shelters are improving their situation, the strategy office is working hard to find solutions for the remainder who end up back on the streets.” Right now, it seems the solution that Austin has come up with is to buy more shelters and subsidize more housing, which simply put means spending more taxpayer money on a problem that does not seem to be subsiding. In fact, on Feb. 7, as reported by the Austin Journal, Interim City Manager Jesus Garza addressed the Public Health Committee of the Austin City Council saying “over the last three fiscal years, we’ve allocated $200 million for this issue alone. In the course of that time, the number of homeless have not decreased, but in fact, have increased.”

Luckily there are solutions available—if we have the political will to implement them. First, the city needs to be held accountable for its spending. Clearly there is something wrong in the process if this much money can be spent on a problem without having an overwhelmingly positive effect. This should spur outside audits looking into exactly how nonprofits and NGOs are spending these millions.

Second, the city needs to admit that the   model is one that is failing to deliver on its promises and is the reason why nearly half of the people who enter shelters exit back into the same situation they were in before their shelter experience. Instead of relying on low-barrier efforts, shelters need to have the freedom to focus on individually tailored responses to mental health trauma and drug and alcohol addiction.

Having a one-stop-shop method like the one found at the Haven for Hope campus in San Antonio offers a low barrier option simply to get people off the streets creating a safer environment for both the homeless and those fortunate enough to have homes. It also offs transitional housing for those willingly participating in mental health programs, drug treatment, employment training, among many other assistance programs.

Over the years since Haven for Hope has been open, downtown homelessness in San Antonio has decreased by 77% and by their own accounts when they follow up with graduates of their program those exiting Haven’s Transformational Campus are earning around $13 an hour, greatly increasing their prospects.

If the city of Austin continues to follow the principles of Housing First—instead of putting the people first—the root causes of homelessness will never be addressed, and the cycle of chronic homelessness will continue to churn out needless suffering.