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Austin, United States

Ending Homelessness (AUS0001)



Action Plan: Austin, United States Action Plan

Action Plan Cycle: 2017



Lead Institution: City of Austin Office of Innovation

Support Institution(s): CS Partner: Ann Howard, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition; Bill Brice, Downtown Austin Alliance, Christopher Kennedy, Leadership Austin

Policy Areas

Capacity Building, Economic Inclusion, Fiscal Openness, Inclusion, Local Commitments, Public Participation, Public Participation in Budget/Fiscal Policy

IRM Review

IRM Report: Austin Final IRM Report 2017

Early Results: Marginal

Design i

Verifiable: Yes

Relevant to OGP Values: Yes

Ambition (see definition): High

Implementation i



To further the city’s goal of ending homelessness, we commit to fostering civic participation and transparency​ by co-creating a systems map with a multi-sector team that works towards greater understanding and shared reasoning around this complex issue, and which strengthens collaboration and decision-making. Short Description:​ Co-create a systems map of homelessness for shared reasoning around this complex issue to better inform funding and policy-making. Leads: Civil Society Partners:​ Ann Howard, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition; Bill Brice, Downtown Austin Alliance, Christopher Kennedy, Leadership Austin Government facilitator:​ Kerry O’Connor, City of Austin Chief Innovation Officer. Project Brief: We design this project to answer two pain points from our civil society partners: 1. How might we increase multi-sector collaboration to reduce scenarios in which downstream problems are neither identified nor addressed? - Vision Zero ATX 2. How might we increase our collective shared reasoning around complex issues? - Leadership Austin Modern city challenges have strong, complex dynamics that make it difficult to anticipate the impact and unintended consequences of public action. Shared reasoning involves the 7 ​ sharing of assumptions and the understanding of tradeoffs of a complex topic, with the goal of creating informed choices and decisions. To demonstrate how the development of a shared reasoning might work, we chose the topic of ending homelessness based upon the readiness of a coalition of community and government partners to do this shared reasoning work together. We make this shared reasoning commitment in this context: Many people experiencing homelessness find themselves stuck in a relentless revolving door of emergency shelters, justice systems, and emergency services. In August 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice argued actions that have the outcome of criminalizing homelessness are unconstitutional. Interrupting this revolving door, preventing the criminalization of homelessness, while responding to community safety concerns, requires creative, multi-sector strategies as well as broad community awareness and understanding. One strategy involved the Homelessness Outreach Street Team (HOST), Austin’s new collaborative initiative to proactively address the needs of people living on the streets. HOST brings together the expertise of police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic, and outreach social workers to bridge the gaps between social services and public safety for hard-to-reach clients. A second strategy involves systems mapping our resources and service delivery gaps. Leveraging these invigorating partnerships, we will build a systems map to inform policy from a bottom-up direction. The map will be informed by the pain points, experiences, needs, and barriers of a) those experiencing homelessness, b) those delivering services, and c) community members experiencing the symptoms of a system that has inadequate resources to effectively serve the needs of the most vulnerable. 1.1 Desired Outcomes 1) The City of Austin has better ways to manage community concerns around homelessness without criminalizing the condition of homelessness. 2) Funders of efforts to end homelessness can better coordinate to a) connect those experiencing homeless to housing, and b) prevent people from sliding into homelessness in the first place. 3) People who care and want to engage can figure out how to participate in helping to end homelessness. 4) City of Austin policies and programs related to ending homelessness are developed with, not just for, the intended beneficiaries and those responsible for implementing the tasks. 1.2 Exploration Questions 1) How might we focus our efforts in stages of the homelessness experience - from living on the edge, losing housing, living in survival mode, and reconnection into housing? 2) For living on the edge and reconnection stages: How can we create more affordable housing opportunities? 3) For living on the edge and prevention of homelessness: Why are people becoming homeless? What preventative actions can we take? 4) Survival and Reconnection stages: How can we engage the broader community? How can we reduce stigma and social barriers - remove “us/them” and create "us"? 5) Reconnection stages: How might we lower the attrition rate - those relapsing into homelessness? 6) What resources are lacking to meet the needs of those that are homeless, and to prevent homelessness, and address mental health issues and substance abuse?

IRM End of Term Status Summary

1. Shared Reasoning on a Complex Issue - Ending Homelessness

Commitment Text

To further the city’s goal of ending homelessness, we commit to fostering civic participation and transparency by co-creating a systems map with a multi-sector team that works towards greater understanding and shared reasoning around this complex issue, and which strengthens collaboration and decision-making.


1. Clarify Phase. Expected deliverables: Hypothetical Systems Map; Synthesis of Community Feedback - experiences, questions to answer, others to engage; Research Plan.

2. Framing Phase. Expected deliverables: Insights from Research, First draft of Systems Map.

3. Conceive/Prototype/Test Phase. Expected deliverables: Feedback sessions on Systems Map; Second iteration of Systems Map; Highlight of gaps and areas of opportunity.

4. Plan/Build Phase. Expected deliverables: Stable draft of Systems Map (never final, always iterative); Policy briefings for Government and Community Leaders; Budget/funding recommendations for City Management and City Council.

Commitment Overview

Commitment Aim

Overall Objective & Relevance

The City of Austin’s first OGP commitment addressed the prevalence of homelessness in Austin. Although numerous city departments and a host of civil society groups focus on the issue, the city’s homelessness rate increased by twenty percent, from 1,832 individuals experiencing homelessness in 2015, to 2,197 in 2016. 'Austin sees 20 percent increase in homeless population,', accessed June 17, 2017, As part of their first OGP commitment, city officials and civil society organizations sought to develop a homelessness systems map that identifies resources and gaps in relief services. Officials intended to increase coordination between service providers, city agencies, and other stakeholders to further the goal of ending homelessness in Austin. The map would also identify opportunities for individuals and organizations that want to participate in homelessness relief efforts. City officials believe that the systems map, propelled by a swell of interest among community partners, may help disrupt the cycle of homelessness that led to its rise in 2016 by increasing inter-agency collaboration and informing more effective policy at City Hall.

Austin’s first commitment addressed the OGP values of access to information and civic participation. The creation of the homelessness systems map will involve new research by city officials, which will increase publicly available information on homelessness and service provision in Austin. The commitment also sought to increase the availability and usability of information. The commitment addressed civic engagement by involving homelessness outreach organizations and increasing meaningful input by key civil society actors in the development of the systems map. While the systems map may potentially involve, or lead to the development of, new technologies, the commitment language and milestones did not specifically promote new technology as key to the commitment’s implementation. Therefore, the IRM researcher does not believe that the commitment, as written, was relevant to the OGP value of technology and innovation. Likewise, the commitment cannot be coded as relevant to public accountability, as public accountability measures must establish “a public facing mechanism that requires governments to justify their actions or respond to citizen inputs.” OGP IRM Procedures Manual, version 2.0, page 52-53 This commitment does not clearly identify such a mechanism.

Specificity and Potential Impact

Austin’s first commitment has been coded as highly specific. Most of the milestones contained in the commitment are objectively verifiable and clearly measurable. While the milestones dealing with research are general, major milestones such as the systems map and a series of policy recommendations are measurable, verifiable, and timely.

The IRM researcher believes this commitment’s potential impact to be potentially transformative. According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), annual public investments in homelessness relief programs cost $19.1 million in 2015. “Homelessness in Austin: Current Needs and Gaps Report,” Ending Community Homelessness Alliance. Revised March 30, 2016. Accessed August 26, 2017. Currently, the city government does not employ a tool for identifying service gaps or areas of greatest need. The creation of a homelessness systems map will benefit both service providers and beneficiaries. This unprecedented tool has the potential to increase efficiency and cooperation among city staff and civil society organizations serving individuals experiencing homelessness, reducing costs to government and CSO actors and more effectively distributing resources across the community.


This commitment, overseen by the Innovation Office, aimed to convert shared understanding between many stakeholders into a systems map of homelessness in Austin. The commitment team aimed to conduct new research on homelessness in Austin, to use that research to develop the homelessness systems map and to inform a series of policy recommendations to city leaders. City staff conducted more than 120 interviews with stakeholders, including individuals experiencing homelessness and homelessness service providers. “Insights based on the iTeam’s research with people with lived experience of homelessness in Austin.” Research presentation. 19 April 2018. From these qualitative interviews, researchers identified some 3,500 data points, which were synthesized into the group’s first research report. Ibid. These interviews were conducted over a period of four months, from September to December 2017.

While the implementation phase was delayed until June 2018, the city’s homelessness research efforts received significant support in the form of a $1.25 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team program. City of Austin Press Release, “Austin to Receive Grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team Program,” Communications and Public Information Office, 12 January 2017. However, the grant is not specific to the OGP commitment, and the city’s homelessness efforts are not confined to the OGP commitment. While the financial support has allowed the Innovation Office to dedicate staff to the commitment, their work overlaps with other initiatives and departments. According to the Chief Innovation Officer, the city’s research on homelessness, which was being conducted during IRM consultations, provided additional data that informed the systems map. Kerry O'Connor (City of Austin Innovation Office), interview by IRM researcher, 28 June 2017

While a sketch of a hypothetical systems map was included in documents provided to the IRM researcher, the map proposed in the city’s action plan was completed in June 2018, outside of the scope of the 2017 action plan. The hypothetical systems map is included on slide 15 in a research findings presentation provided by the Innovation Office. Taylor Cook, an Innovation Office fellow who was assigned to the homelessness research initiative, explained that the systems map was delayed due to a restructuring of the project after the Bloomberg grant was awarded. “The focus has moved away from specific service mapping,” she said during an interview with the IRM researcher. Taylor Cook (City of Austin Innovation Office), interview by IRM researcher, 8 December 2017 The development of the systems map was delayed in favor of a strong focus on the research phase of this commitment. During interviews with the IRM researcher, city staff were unable to confirm that the systems map would be completed by December 2017, as initially proposed in the action plan. City staff in the Innovation Office explained that the systems map was still viewed as a valuable resource and expressed a general desire for the map to be completed. However, during the implementation process, as more stakeholders were consulted and the department received grant funding, priorities shifted toward the research phase of this commitment. City staff explained that a stronger focus on qualitative interviews with individuals experiencing homelessness would ultimately strengthen the city’s efforts to end homelessness, including the proposed systems map.

In addition to the research undertaken by Innovation Office staff, two separate reports on homelessness were generated by ECHO during the implementation process: “Homelessness in Austin/Travis County: Current Needs and Gaps Report” and “Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness.” Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. “Homelessness in Austin/Travis County: Current Needs and Gaps Report.” 1 September 2017. Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. “Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness.” 8 February 2018. While both reports presented new data and recommendations on homelessness in Austin, these are independent assessments conducted by ECHO and were unrelated to the city’s OGP commitment. Requests by the IRM researcher for interviews with ECHO staff were not returned.

Early results: did it open government?

Access to Information: Marginal

Civic Participation: Marginal

Prior to the implementation of this commitment, city officials and stakeholders identified a need for increased coordination among civil society organizations and government agencies addressing homelessness in the city. Many different groups were engaging with individuals experiencing homelessness. The potential impact of a systems map of homelessness, which these groups could use to strengthen collaboration and identify gaps in service, was transformative. The commitment aimed to strengthen coordination among service providers and to include the voices of those experiencing homelessness in the development of new government policies and programs. By the end of the implementation period (December 2017), the commitment had created marginal changes in government practice around access to information. The OGP IRM coding methodology identifies a “marginal” impact on open government as “some change, but minor in terms of its effect on level of openness.” The commitment team’s new qualitative research on individuals experiencing homelessness delivered a series of findings that were shared with the public and the government’s CSO partners during a series of research presentations.

As part of the implementation process, the Innovation Office staff and CSO partner ECHO worked together to form the Homelessness Advisory Committee of Austin (HACA). HACA was designed in October to be a direct opportunity for individuals who are currently experiencing homelessness, or who have previously experienced homelessness, to “help with the development of research tools, consult on findings, and test possible solutions.” In its first few months, the group adopted bylaws and procedures, contributed to research around the OGP commitment on homelessness and began planning to recruit new members. The development of HACA created an unprecedented channel for including the views of individuals experiencing homeless in public policy decision that directly affect those same individuals. This development marks a significant step forward in civic participation on this critical issue.

By the end of the implementation period, the commitment had created major changes in the collaborative approach to understanding homelessness. The work plan included in the first milestone of this commitment because very important, and with added financial support, the commitment team expanded its research efforts. As mentioned above, the design-focused qualitative interviews conducted by the commitment team collected some 3,500 data points. To undertake this level of unprecedented collaboration, the commitment team required more time than was provided by the pilot program’s one-year window. The responses gathered as part of the expanded research phase of this commitment would ultimately inform the systems map produced in June.


While this commitment’s implementation was delayed until June 2018, the initial research process yielded new data on homelessness in Austin. One area for improvement is accessibility of data between city departments and homelessness service providers. During interviews with the IRM researcher, city staff tasked with conducting research for this commitment expressed frustration that partner organizations were hesitant to share data. City government may be able to alleviate these delays by empowering city staff and incentivizing affiliated organizations to be fully transparent. Currently, the primary partner for this commitment, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, provides their data in limited offerings that are not reusable or machine-readable. Data should be made available in reusable, machine-readable formats. City staff should continue implementation of this commitment’s goals, either as part of future OGP action plans or as a standalone project.


Links to further evidence

· City of Austin Innovation Office – Commitment 1 Project Information Page

· City of Austin Innovation Office – Homelessness Research Summary

· City of Austin Innovation Office – Homelessness Research Presentation Slides

· City of Austin Innovation Office – Homelessness Project Tracking Site

· ECHO – Homelessness in Austin/Travis County: Needs and Gaps Report

· ECHO – Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness


Open Government Partnership