University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work students and alumni joined more than 200 volunteers Sunday (Jan. 23) to try and capture a snapshot of homeless people in Austin and Travis County. The homeless count is done every year as part of a national effort to estimate the number of homeless in the United States. 

“What happened in Austin yesterday was replicated in cities all over the country as part of the Annual Point-in-Time Count,” said Dr. Calvin Streeter, professor of social work, adding that the school was used this year as the count headquarters. “In addition to the count, a survey was conducted to learn more about the demographic characteristics of the homeless and to assess the kinds of services they need to help move them off the streets and into permanent shelter.”

The count is coordinated locally by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), a coalition of homeless service providers. Streeter is on the ECHO Board of Directors. The data is used by service providers to plan and improve services for unsheltered homeless people in Austin and Travis County and as part of the city’s annual grant application to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for funding to support homeless services.

It is estimated that there are approximately 4,000 homeless people in Austin.  Due to the economic turn down, Streeter said there has been an increase in homeless families.

“Homelessness sits at the vortex where many social problems converge. Lack of affordable housing, unemployment and underemployment, lack of affordable health care, family violence, mental illness, substance abuse and addiction, all come together around the issue of homelessness,” said Streeter. “Projects involving the homeless provide students with an opportunity to develop an understanding of a range of social problems facing our community, and to think critically about our role as a profession in responding to these problems.”

Mario Cortez, an alum (B.S.W. ’97, M.S.S.W. ’03) who now works as program coordinator for Foundation Communities Children’s HOME Initiative, served as a team leader in Sunday’s count.

“In today’s world, we are seeing a drop in wages, reduction in work hours, layoffs, foreclosures, the effects of war, drugs, dwindling resources, increased hunger, service providers having to do more with less, increased crime, lack of affordable housing, and on and on and on,” he said, adding that extremely low incomes and lack of affordable housing are two primary reasons why families become homeless.

“The greatest challenge is having enough time to work with an individual or family to fully address the core issues that have created a cycle of poverty or homelessness,” Cortez said. “When you couple an individual’s or family’s issues with societal issues, then the challenges seem even greater.”

YNN (Your News Now) was one of several media outlets covering the count.

—Nancy Neff, University Office of Public Affairs