APRIL 3, 2021: In a downtown office park on a hot summer’s day in Austin, I’m standing in line for a coffee at a coffee shop.
I ask a young woman if she has a place to sleep.
She’s just arrived in town from Albuquerque, a city of more than 2 million.
She says she’s got a roommate and her sister is out.
She said she wants to sleep in a park and not in a shelter.
“But I’m not going to do that, because I don’t want to be homeless.”
She’s homeless because she’s a college student.
Homelessness in the United States is on the rise, but it’s especially acute in Austin.
More than 1 in 5 Austin residents live below the poverty line.
A recent report by the city found that nearly 30 percent of Austin’s homeless population lives in a homeless shelter, which is often considered the last resort for people in dire need.
Austin has the largest concentration of homeless residents in the country and has the third-largest homeless population in the state.
“We’re seeing a real problem with the way we treat homeless people,” says Austin City Councilman David Alvarez.
He has been leading a push for reforms to Austin’s city code that would make it easier for homeless people to find permanent housing and require them to be served.
“There’s an issue with the city code and with the state code that allows sheltering as a last resort.
That’s not how we treat people.”
Alvarez says the state needs to reform the state’s homelessness laws to make them more consistent with the needs of people living on the streets.
Austin is also trying to tackle the issue of homeless people sleeping in parks, a practice that is becoming increasingly common as the city has seen an increase in the number of people sleeping outside.
“When we started the City of Austin Code of Ordinances in 2016, we didn’t know what to do with it,” says Alvarez.
“So we asked a lot of questions about where to put it and how to enforce it.
It’s a tough balance, but we’re doing it.”
Alvarez, who represents the neighborhood of East Austin that has been designated a homeless sanctuary, says he believes the code is a good starting point.
“The city code was created as a tool for us to provide services, and we’re trying to do it right now,” he says.
“And so, I think that the state of Texas, we have to be very careful about how we define the homeless.”
Austin has one of the largest concentrations of homeless in the nation, and it has the second-highest homeless population per capita in the U.S. Austin Mayor Steve Adler says his administration is committed to working with local governments to ensure the city is treating homeless people with dignity and compassion.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to get out of it, but I know we’re not going away,” he tells NBC News.
Adler, who is homeless himself, is also working to bring the city into compliance with the new rules.
“It’s a difficult process.
It takes a lot more time and a lot less money,” he said.
He believes the city will be successful in getting the code passed in time to help homeless people who are now living in shelters.
“This is a very complex issue and we will work very hard to get it done,” he adds.
Adlers proposal is the first of its kind in the US.
Last year, the city created a homeless-specific task force to examine how to address homelessness in Austin and work with other cities to tackle it.
“That was a very big change, and I think it’s a very positive change, that we can all come together and have this conversation,” Adler said.
Adelman believes that, for many of the homeless, the new law will be a catalyst for finding a permanent home.
“They may be a part of a shelter, but they’re homeless because they are homeless, and they need a home,” he explains.
“Some people are living in motels, some people are in hotels, some are sleeping in vans, and so they’re living in that situation because they need shelter.”
A homeless woman stands in line outside a shelter in Austin’s West Austin neighborhood on July 6, 2021.
In a city that is home to the largest homeless population of any city in the entire United States, Austin’s Mayor Steve Alves has a difficult time finding the right solutions to the problem.
He says there’s been a huge influx of people who have moved into the city and are now facing a different kind of homelessness.
“As a city we’ve had a lot in common with many other cities, but in some ways we’re very different,” he explained.
“You’re going into a different community, you’re getting older, you have more of a family, and you have to navigate a different set of rules.
There’s a new sense of urgency