To Help Homeless Overcome Addiction, Start With Stable Housing, Social Workers Say

Apr 28, 2017

Social service providers didn’t need a survey to tell them there is a substance abuse problem among the homeless community in Austin, as the 2017 Point in Time count shows.

The count, conducted each January by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, was released last week. It found that the number of homeless people in Travis County with substance abuse problems doubled in the past year.  ECHO Director Ann Howard attributes the rise to the synthetic street drug K2.

“We’ve got, I think, a mix of people … [whose] existence on the street is miserable, and drugs are readily available, and we have a noted lack of access to substance abuse treatment,” she said.  

Travis County’s Integral Care is the main provider of substance abuse treatment for the homeless in Austin. The agency uses grant money from the city, state and county to place homeless people with mental illnesses, substance addiction, or both, into treatment and housing, according to Chief Strategy Officer Ellen Richards.

“We literally take people who are experiencing homelessness, move them straight into housing, regardless of whether they have an active mental illness or substance use disorder," she said. "And then we wrap rehabilitation supports around them so they can get on the path to recovery and a new life."

Stable housing, Richards said, is the key to helping the homeless overcome addiction.

“If someone’s living on the streets and struggling with a substance use disorder, it’s impossible for them to recover on the streets."

Integral Care currently houses 450 individuals with substance abuse or mental illness issues. The Downtown Austin Community Court also provides substance abuse treatment and housing through a grant from the city.

But the demand for services exceeds the court’s resources, said Jennifer Sowinsky, clinical case manager supervisor.

“Our fiscal year starts in October," she said. "Last year we ran out of funding by about February, because there was such a demand for these 90-day programs."

"Frankly, their reality is really unpleasant and K2 gives them an escape." - Dr. Christopher Ziebell

One hurdle to combating K2 is that people on the street often don’t want to stop using the drug, said Dr. Christopher Ziebell at University Medical Center Brackenridge. As medical director of the emergency room closest to downtown, Ziebell sees the majority of people who are hospitalized for K2 in Austin.

“Frankly, their reality is really unpleasant and K2 gives them an escape," he said. "They get taken to a safe environment, and they wake up protected and sheltered, and I’m not entirely sure that they see it as a negative in the way the rest of us see it as a negative."

Ziebell said it's common to see the same people return to the ER due to K2. Sometimes, people even end up in the ER twice in one day.

“I’ve had quite a few patients where I got the patient to acknowledge that what they did was a problem and they'll tell me that they're never going to do it again an then they show up unconscious an hour later,” he said.

The Austin Police Department launched an initiative in June called the Homeless Outreach Street Team to reach people doing drugs on the streets who are unlikely to seek help. So far, the team, which includes staff from Integral Care and the Downtown Austin Community Court, has been successful at getting people to commit to go into treatment. Since the beginning of the year, the team has connected 30 people to housing services and 11 to substance use disorder treatment, according to numbers provided by Integral Care.