Steven lives in Austin, Texas, in the South of the United States.
Most people know Austin as a place for its food, its distinct culture, or its music.It is also the capital of the state with the highest number of people living without shelter in the Southern U.S. People experiencing homelessness face many challenges including safely storing their belongings as they make their way through the day. Fortunately, there have been some solutions, and Steven has been a part.
The story begins as a personal one. Steven has not had a home for most of twelve years. During the day, he works or finds places to pass the time. At night, he sleeps where he can. After being released from jail for a non-violent crime, Steven had nowhere to put his things. The local Community Coach could not provide him a locker. “I don’t have no case management for you. Why don’t you go down to City Hall and tell those guys.”
Steven went to City Hall and registered for a locker. Three weeks later, he finally got a locker. He realized, “Something so simple as a locker could help so many people but they made it so hard to get one.” That’s when he decided to advocate for lockers at the Austin Homelessness Advisory Council.
Steven explains, “The AHAC is a collection of 15 individuals with lived experience. Some are currently housed, some are currently unhoused. They give street-level advice and different services and different actions that the city can take to alleviate homelessness and serve the needs of the homeless, and maybe even eliminate homelessness in Austin.”
Notably the Advisory Council has had a real victory on this issue. Together, with various city services, they have worked to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have somewhere to store their belongings during the day. There are now hundreds of lockers for people, part of the Violet Keepsafe Storage Program. Steven is understandably proud, saying people can, “keep their stuff safe, they can keep their stuff dry, while they go out and go to appointments, whether that’s planning for work, whether that’s medical appointments, or meeting with case management.”
Stephen reflects on the experience, “To know that AHAC has made a difference, to know that we have moved the needle on what the city is doing on services that it provides the homeless, it’s a tremendous feeling. It really is. It’s gratifying to know that the city is listening to our voice to better serve the people in need.”
The model is a first for the country and one that could be replicated in other places. Too often, services for people experiencing homelessness are designed without their input. The AHAC was one of Austin’s commitments as part of its Open Government Partnership action plan, and the Keepsafe Bins have made a concrete difference in peoples’ lives as they try to take their next steps forward. Perhaps this reform in Austin can spread to other regions dealing with the similar problems.
Cities across the United States will need to solve other problems—housing crises, high rates of poverty, untreated mental illness—before they can fully address their homelessness issue. Until then, they can help individuals with the same focus driving Steven: “My mission, my goal is that everyone that needs one has a warm, dry, safe, secure place to lay their head at night, everyone. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that mission through, but that’s my mission. That’s the Austin I want to see, one where someone doesn’t have to spend the night out on the street.”