Austin to Hire Ex-Obama Official As Homelessness Consultant for $11,000+ Per Month
The Austin City Council has approved a motion to negotiate and execute a consulting agreement with former Obama Administration official Matthew Doherty for up to $95,000 over a period of eight months.
He will advise the city government on its strategy for helping the homeless.
Doherty served from 2015 through 2019 as the director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, before being ousted by the Trump Administration last year.
The consultant will help fill a gap during an effort to recruit a permanent lead on homeless services within Austin Public Health, according to Chris Shorter, Assistant City Manager for outcomes associated with health.
Shorter said that Doherty’s experience at the federal level could help to bring new resources to the city to help the homeless.
Brian Thornton, a resident opposed to the contract who spoke during a public comment period at the council meeting yesterday, Feb. 6, complained that Doherty doesn’t live in Austin and won’t even be working here full-time.
“We initially wanted someone who would live in Austin and become immersed in the issue that we’re facing, but now we seem to be hiring a patchwork of high-paid consultants, one of whom seems to have another contract with the state of California and is going to be operating out of Washington, D.C,” he said.
He was referring to news reports in December that California Governor Gavin Newsom had hired Doherty as an advisor, very soon after Doherty left his federal post. The New York Times reported, “Mr. Doherty was fired last month after reported clashes with the president’s team over potential actions in California, including a controversial proposal to move homeless people into unspecified federal facilities.”
Thornton commented that the city couldn’t reasonably expect someone to do both jobs: “I’m not sure that Austin is going to be the priority in that scenario.”
Council Member Alison Alter said she was concerned about that too. “That’s a little bit of a red flag,” she said, though she voted for the contract anyway.
City Manager Spencer Cronk reassured her that $95,000 is an “up-to amount,” so Doherty won’t be paid unless he performs the work stipulated in the contract, which will include “milestones.”
Thornton, however, also criticized Doherty’s record on the Interagency Council on Homelessness, saying homelessness nationally increased during his tenure. He blamed Doherty’s advocacy for a “housing first” strategy, which decouples housing services and treatment.
Mayor Steve Adler disagrees. He remarked that Austin should “move forward on the motel strategy,” which is a type of housing first strategy. Hiring Doherty will help with overall strategic coordination among service providers, he argued.
Adler: “I am going to support this item today because I think it is an all-hands-on-deck issue. This is someone that has dealt with this challenge in virtually every city across this country and will be able to ring to us his perspective on best practices. I am helpful but we need to move forward.”
Adler and the Council voted to approve the motion to hire Doherty by a vote of 10–1.
Jimmy Flannigan was the only opposing vote. He said, “I’m not going to support this contract today because I don’t feel sufficiently educated about how we have adjusted for challenges that we experienced under our previous homeless strategy officer, and without those challenges really accounted for I’m not comfortable bringing in more outside support.”
He was referring to the abrupt departure in October of Lori Pampilo Harris, the city’s former strategy officer, who lasted only a few months on the job.
Flannigan advocates for letting Austin nonprofit ECHO take a leading role on homelessness rather than trying to coordinate services from City Hall: “I’m also concerned about… continuing to do smaller deals on this dais when we should be coordinating this effort through ECHO (which could) do the work with our nonprofits in a more coordinated way.”
Council Member Pio Renteria supported the contract, saying $95,000 was not too high a price to pay for someone with the “connections and know-how to go out and get the resources and coordinate this problem that we’re facing here.”
Prior to serving in the Obama Administration, Doherty was a policy consultant for the Ending Homelessness in Downtown San Diego Campaign. His expertise includes financing, policy, and operational issue for supportive housing, the Obama Administration announced at the time of his hiring.
Comments from those Experiencing Homelessness
A number of people who live on Austin’s streets or in shelters came to testify during the public comment portion of the City Council agenda relating to this item. One of them was Theresa Blackman, who said that there aren’t enough shelters in the city.
“Every day we get criticized by people that we don’t even know. Why y’all criticizing us?… We’re people.” On the security situation, she said, “it’s not safe for a woman to be living out on the street. It’s not safe.”
Lisa Aven, a former truck driver who is now homeless said, “Take the money, give it to someone who’s going to spend it correctly and not put it in their pockets, and help us.”
Debra Nugent, a Salvation Army shelter resident, who says she became homeless seven years ago when her husband lost his job, commented, “We don’t need to outsource someone to come in and help with homelessness. We as a community can do it by bringing together churches and human resources in various organizations to invest in buildings to house the homeless.”
“Just give ’em a room, that’s all they need. And do it for free. Because they can’t just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. There are times in society when people become disenfranchised due to social and economic changes that they have no control over. And they can’t get back in and they need to be lifted out of homelessness.”
Nugent continued, “This is not socialism, it’s not communism, it’s being conservative, it’s using human resources in a positive way and helping them to get on their feet by finding productive work that they can do even if it’s making furniture or artwork or something like that.”
Council Member Greg Casar thanked Nugent, Aven, Blackman, and others for coming to testify, saying that the hiring of Doherty represented a small piece of the city’s overall investment in serving the homeless in the city.