The City of Austin’s Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST), dedicated to assisting people experiencing homelessness before their needs escalate, has made more than 7,000 visits and connected individuals to medical and mental health services hundreds of times over the past three years.
The multi-agency outreach program intervenes to address the needs of people before they are put into situations that typically result in admission to an emergency room or psychiatric facility, or an arrest or citation.
The Team’s goal is to build trust with those experiencing homelessness and to connect them to services that can help bring them closer to long-term stability and recovery.
HOST, which is modeled after similar programs in other U.S. cities, began as a three-month pilot program in July 2016 and was established as an ongoing City program in October of that year.
Since then the Team has made 7,327 visits to people living on the streets in downtown Austin, supporting up to 1,197 people per year.
Individuals have been linked to medical services 797 times and mental health services 505 times over the three-year period. People were diverted from high-cost hospital or psychiatric emergency rooms, often to community health care, in more than 350 instances, and from jail in over 160 instances.
The average cost of a hospital or psychiatric ER visit is around $1,400 and the cost of incarceration in jail can run to hundreds of dollars.
The HOST program is a collaboration between the Austin Police Department (APD), Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (ATCEMS), Downtown Austin Community Court, Integral Care and the Downtown Austin Alliance. The Team also partners with other community organizations, including CommUnityCare, and Austin Public Health.
“Our incredible HOST Team are the first responders for people experiencing homelessness,” said Lori Pampilo Harris, Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer. “Going to where they are, identifying their crises, and determining how best to help is often the first step to getting someone on the path to a more stable future. By intervening when things are critical, in the way HOST does, we can divert individuals away from costly emergency services such as ER and jail, towards longer-term solutions, and ultimately end their housing and health crisis.”
“HOST is making a measurable difference because every day our team takes to the streets to engage directly with Austin’s homeless,” said Austin-Travis County EMS Assistant Chief Andy Hofmeister. “They establish a relationship, figure out ways to connect the person with whatever they may need, whether that’s housing, mental health care, or medical health care, and seek to make a genuine change in someone’s life.”
Amber Price, ATCEMS Clinical Specialist and HOST member, who has spent more than three years working with people experiencing homelessness, said, “The people we help are a wide range of individuals and every single one of them needs something unique to help them get back on their feet. We talk to them about medications but we also help them set up their housing assessments. Each shift, our goal is to reach out and find as many people as we can, move them into a clinic, and get them connected to everything they need. This program has already helped so many of Austin’s most vulnerable people.”
The core Homeless Outreach Street Team, which services the downtown area between Mopac and I-35, along with West Campus from West 29th Street to Lady Bird Lake, is made up of the following nine positions:
- One Integral Care peer support specialist
- One ATCEMS Community Health Paramedic (CHiP)
- Two APD Crisis Intervention Team officers
- One Downtown Austin Community Court case manager
- Two Integral Care outreach and engagement specialists
- Two Integral Care licensed mental health specialists.
The collaboration between agencies allows the HOST program to address a wide range of needs. Integral Care and ATCEMS assist individuals with immediate or chronic medical issues, accessing medication needs and connecting people to mental health and other clinical services, while APD officers provide security and work to build a positive relationship with those experiencing homelessness.
Community Court intensive case managers help individuals apply to housing programs and assist with many of their legal needs, such as getting an ID, medical benefits, Social Security Disability Insurance, and Social Security Income benefits.