INFORMATION: How people learn what services are available
The unsheltered community most commonly accesses information about what resources and services are available in Austin/Travis County through word of mouth in conversations with other people experiencing homelessness.
People rely on one another to share information about services and benefit from learning from others’ experiences. The community shares information not only about what is available, but also about how to best connect with those opportunities, like where to go or what eligibility requirements are like.
However, like in the game of telephone, information gets lost and distorted as it spreads throughout the population. Sometimes, key information that would best connect people to the services they need can be overlooked, or information about how to access a key service they could benefit from is out of date or no longer accurate. For example, more than ⅓ interviewees in this project had never heard of the Coordinated Assessment, the intake tool that is used to connect people experiencing homelessness to permanent housing programs in the Homelessness Response System.
Relationships between people experiencing unsheltered homelessness serve multiple important roles. These relationships can be life saving, not only from an emotional and physical safety perspective, but also in a practical sense. Relationships between unsheltered folks provide a network by which information is distributed. Without relationships with others experiencing homelessness, information can be hard to come by.
Another source of information about how to get connected to services that will help people meet their basic needs is through other services. However, interviewees reported a lack of trust in the reliability of information distributed by service providers regarding other resources in the community.
OPINIONS: How people form beliefs of services
Interviewees most commonly expressed forming beliefs about the quality of services through their own personal experiences with them, whether negative or positive. While relationships with others can serve as important sources of information about what is out there and how to connect with it, people tend to form their own opinions through first hand experience. Word of mouth still plays an important role in people’s opinions, however, personal experience is cited more frequently.
People trust organizations and staff who:
- Follow-through on promises and are consistently present
- Demonstrate compassion towards them and/or connect with their humanity
People distrust organizations and staff who:
- Do not demonstrate compassion:
- Are not reliable:
- Exhibit racist and/or discriminatory behaviors:
LISTEN BELOW:“Of course, I’ve definitely felt discriminated against as a Black woman because a lot of people look at Black people as, I guess like we’re extra work or too much work or, you know, they can’t do anything really to help us.”
Personal lived experience of homelessness makes a big difference in the unsheltered community’s perceptions of service providers.
“Anybody can become traumatized, just by being around in an environment or atmosphere where you’re dealing with a whole lot of trauma. People coming from prison and homelessness and stuff and got all these different types of addictions and different type of like, what they call these ‘demons’ and stuff and all type of like – I’m talking about difficult life circumstances and situations that really you can’t really just study up on in a book to get the full understanding of. You can’t just go to a library and just read up on this stuff and become an expert on it. Some things can only be taught by experience.”
Service providers with lived experience of homelessness demonstrate many of the behaviors that build trust with the unsheltered community, such as follow-through on promises.
POINTS OF VIEW: How identities or past experiences impact opinions
Blackness and Identity
Racialization of social services in America effects how the Black community in the Austin area engages with the Homelessness Response System. Social services provided through “the public safety net,” such as homeless services, have been intentionally racialized by people and organizations in positions of power and influence over political narratives, such as public figures and media outlets, since the Reagan era. The need for social services, which was once seen as a product of unforeseen circumstances, is now broadly seen by the American public as a personal moral failure. This has disproportionally stigmatized Black people and the communities they are connected to. The political narrative around social services tells all of us, but especially Black people, that success is equivalent to self-sustainability and hyper-independence. Blackness and the stigma associated with blackness inevitably have shaped the point of view of the people who participated in this research project.
Intersections of identity, such as between race and gender, have profound impacts on the way that people view services and systems. For example, women were more likely than men to describe finding information about services available in the community via advertisements or search engines. Men, on the other hand, were much more likely to express a desire to live independently, without external assistance.
Identity influences the preferences that people experiencing homelessness have and the reactions they have to their circumstances. The frequent institutionalization of Black men often leads to substantial emotional and/or psychological barriers to obtaining stable housing.
Trauma and Emotional Well-Being
Mental health issues and/or traumatic experiences can affect the way that people interact with the system, and can get in the way of navigating services in a way that best meets the needs of the individual. In the absence of individualized care, the emotional state of people experiencing homelessness can worsen.
Whether coming from prior to homelessness or occurring during and/or compounded by homelessness, mental health issues and trauma can contribute to substance use issues for some people, but not all. For some, substance use becomes a barrier to accessing services and/or obtaining housing independently.
It is impossible to know for certain whether a person is experiencing homelessness or not just by looking at them. However, living on the street is traumatic, and people going through this type of trauma often appear and behave in a way that is limited by the boundaries of their own trauma response. Often, the way that people experiencing homelessness are perceived by others in the general public can create barriers to engaging with services. These experiences also contribute to feelings of isolation and negative self-talk.
Personal History and System Involvement
Past experience within other systems, such as the criminal justice system, can affect the way that people view homeless services. When services provided within the Homelessness Response System resemble institutional environments, people with such backgrounds can become re-traumatized. Avoidance of such services is a common response.
Many people experiencing homelessness have already experienced substantial structural barriers to attaining stable housing, and now feel that they have no choice but to access services, whether or not they trust them or have a positive perception of them.
It takes a lot of vulnerability to trust a stranger to provide you with support. Many people struggle with achieving such levels of vulnerability, for some because of past trauma that has caused them to build walls around themselves as a means of survival. However, when survival is dependent on accessing services, sometimes these walls have to be broken down and trust is the only option.
Every person experiencing homelessness has their own unique outlook on life, and their points of view are informed by the individual paths each individual has walked. In interview sessions, interviewees brought up many aspects of their points of view that were not explicitly asked about, but which offer valuable insight into how people and systems interact. In these responses, ⅓ of interviewees described finding hope and comfort in their lives through faith and/or religion.
SYSTEM GAPS: Opportunities for more complete system access
When asked where they go to meet their daily needs while unsheltered, a vast majority of research participants mentioned day centers, navigation centers, emergency shelters, and supportive services that comprise the formal Homelessness Response System. When clients engage with these services, their information is entered into the Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), the local database used to record and track client-level information on the characteristics and service needs of people experiencing homelessness in the community, and which ties together homeless service providers so as to coordinate services across the system. People who are connected to these service provider organizations have already made it to the “front door” of the system, and many of the people who participated in this research project are already inside, receiving assistance.
Several participants, however, had not yet reached the “front door” of the formal system. These folks get their basic needs met through engagements with other groups and entities in the community. By and large, these groups and entities are churches and religious institutions, which offer a wide array of assistance to the unsheltered community, including meals, pantry items, clothing, gear, showers, laundry, and emotional and spiritual connection, among other support. Public services that are not homelessness-specific but which people experiencing homelessness can benefit from – such as the City of Austin’s library system, Pop Up Resource Clinics offered by the Public Health Department, Central Health’s Medical Access Program (MAP), and the local Veteran’s Affairs office – were also mentioned frequently.
A more coordinated approach across groups and entities that frequently engage with the unsheltered community is necessary to close gaps in access to the Homelessness Response System. Offering entities working in the community that are not formalized as a part of the Homelessness Response System a pathway to become so is a major missed opportunity as well.
People, groups, and entities that engage with unhoused folks in the Austin area have been connected through this project and are now beginning the process of developing next steps to overcome the challenges and issues raised by the Black unsheltered community in this project. Once those next steps are determined, information about them will be added into this section of this webpage.