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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

May 2023 | Volume 16 | Issue 5

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress reports that after a steady decline from 2010 to 2016, the rate of homelessness in the United States increased year over year from 2017 to 2020. It goes on to explain that 1.25 million people experienced sheltered and unsheltered homelessness in 2020. In an effort to combat this growing public health crisis, in 2022 the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness announced a plan to decrease homelessness by 25 percent by 2025. This intensive strategic plan states that housing alone is not the solution to homelessness. Instead, experts show that success comes when opportunity for trauma-informed behavioral and physical health services, education, and income equality are offered along with affordable and sustainable housing solutions. The administration goes on to emphasize that the criminalization of homelessness only increases homelessness and creates long-term barriers to housing. Instead, on page 33 the Homeless Assessment report recommends “housing providers and local policymakers review programs and policies that may pose barriers to housing for people with criminal records—an issue that disproportionately impacts people of color.” These recommendations reflect the mission of The Downtown Austin Community Court (DACC), which is to administer justice equitably and compassionately to foster trust and accountability, and to use a person-centered and housing-focused intensive case management model to help individuals experiencing homelessness achieve long-term stability.

This year, DACC is celebrating 23 years of service in Austin, Texas. During these years of service, DACC has evolved its services and expanded its impact to serve more people experiencing homelessness by providing connection to care in a myriad of ways. DACC provides court diversion services for people with low-level offenses to prevent further justice system involvement. Court participants can meet with licensed clinicians and peer support specialists to screen and assess for needs and create comprehensive case plans that set them up for success.

DACC focuses on frequent users of public systems, who have consistent contact with police, emergency medical services and hospitals, corrections facilities, and the shelter system. This approach allows for this group of people to receive the services they need while allowing police and other first responders more time to focus on local public safety matters. As DACC has identified unmet needs in the population it serves, it has proactively expanded its model to ensure services are comprehensive and use best practices to improve service experience and outcomes for people receiving care.

A holistic approach to care empowers staff to meet people where they are and build rapport and trust from that point forward. DACC’s Intensive Case Management program has a team of clinical case managers, who use a person-centered approach to identify long-term housing solutions and provide access to comprehensive wraparound social services supports. Since 2015, DACC has connected more than 400 people to long-term housing. DACC developed walk-in triage case management services for people needing access to basic needs, assistance with resource navigation, and links to health and mental health resources. DACC fulfills, on average, more than 50 requests for walk-in services daily. This “no wrong door” approach provides the chance for people to learn about services available and connect with a case manager as well as to be immediately connected to the community court to begin diversion efforts when appropriate. The Journal of Community Justice notes that both of DACC’s case management programs identify and remove barriers to success by helping people obtain identification documents, providing use of a mailing address, assistance with access to public benefits, and connection to employment services.

Community outreach and engagement have also been prioritized in DACC’s work through the Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) and the Austin Homelessness Advisory Council (AHAC), in addition to incorporating feedback from stakeholders and the people DACC serves into departmental planning processes. HOST is a collaboration between DACC, police, emergency medical services (EMS), and the local mental health authority, who conduct proactive outreach in the community to learn about the needs of people experiencing homelessness and then connect them with services. DACC has a Clinical Case Manager assigned to HOST, funds the local mental health authority staff on HOST, and prioritizes HOST referrals for their Intensive Case Management program to ensure that people being engaged have somewhere to go when they’re ready to connect with a service provider. DACC and the HOST team are featured in the forthcoming COPS Office multimedia toolkit, Sharing the Solutions: Police and Court Partnerships to Address Homelessness.

AHAC is a group of individuals who have experienced homelessness in the Austin community, who meet biweekly to provide input on policies, programming, and practices impacting individuals experiencing homelessness. AHAC was initially developed by the city’s Innovation Office with the support of a Bloomberg grant, after which DACC assumed responsibility for facilitation and administrative support to ensure AHAC’s contributions could continue to be a long-term resource. AHAC’s expertise has helped guide DACC’s programming across all service areas and has been an invaluable resource for a multitude of city departments and community organizations seeking to improve their services and impact on the community.

DACC is a leader in critical basic needs services for the broader homeless community in Austin. Operation of the Violet Keepsafe Storage program (VKS), which provides centrally located, free storage services for more than 450 people experiencing homelessness, falls under DACC’s purview. VKS is an innovative and compassionate program that allows people to know their belongings are secure when they are accessing programs and services. When Austin’s Cold Weather Shelter (CWS) is activated during winter weather events, DACC serves as the centralized registration point to ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness are connected to shelter including transportation resources. DACC leverages its work during CWS operations to bring awareness of available services and invite individuals to come back and engage in homeless and court services when DACC is open.

Trauma-informed care is incorporated into DACC policies, procedures, and daily practices, and DACC’s leadership provides ongoing staff support and professional training opportunities for the team to continue to learn evidence-based services and promising practices. Reflecting on DACC’s impact, partnership engagement, and true care for those they serve, the DACC team gives much credit to Peter Valdez. Valdez worked with DACC from 2000 through early 2023, first as a case manager and then rising to the leadership role of Court Administrator.

Valdez’s social work background, dedication to public service, and commitment to compassionately serving the homeless community helped shape DACC’s service evolution during the last two decades. “Downtown Austin Community Court was incredibly fortunate to benefit from Peter Valdez’s service for nearly 23 years. His vision and leadership is largely why we have such impactful, intensive, and person-focused services available today for our neighbors experiencing homelessness,” said Robert Kingham, Interim Director for DACC. “Peter helped develop a compassion-based organization that has become one of the pillars of Austin’s homelessness response system and built a dedicated team and culture of service that will ensure DACC’s continued positive impact for many years to come.” In recognition of excellence and their contribution to the field, DACC has been named a Criminal Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Learning Site by the Council of State Governments, Justice Center. As a Learning Site, DACC will provide technical assistance and subject matter expertise for communities invested in diverting people experiencing homelessness with behavioral health needs from the justice system.

Bonnie Sultan
Special Advisor
Center for Justice Innovation

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