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County land deal could lead to new homeless shelter

Tuesday, August 11, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County is considering a real estate deal with the Salvation Army that could lead to a brand-new shelter for homeless women and children.

During its regular voting session last week, the Commissioners Court voted to direct staff to begin preparations to sell the land at 4523 Tannehill Lane to the charitable organization.

The Salvation Army is looking to build a new shelter to expand the services it currently offers at the Austin Shelter for Women and Children, which sits on land adjacent to the site it is now proposing to buy from the county.

“We have not added beds in our community for women and children since 2001,” the Salvation Army’s Kathy Ridings told commissioners on Tuesday. “And if you think of all the people who have moved here since then, it stands to reason that we are going to need more capacity.”

Ridings said that nearly three out of every four people whom the Salvation Army shelters in Austin are either women or children. Currently, as many as 130 families – including 272 children – are lingering on the organization’s waiting list.

“Rarely a week goes by now when we don’t have an emergency family staying downtown on the floor of our chapel because we have nowhere else to put them,” Ridings explained. “And that’s people living in cars with their kids in these kinds of temperatures.”

The new shelter would go a long way toward meeting the growing needs of the community, Ridings told the commissioners.

While a solution to a problem presented in such dire terms may seem like an easy sell – especially given that it will be revenue-positive for the county – Commissioner Ron Davis did bring up two particular concerns: safety and location.

Citing his discussions with neighborhood associations regarding the existing shelter, Davis said, “Some of the complaints that have been coming from the community are that it’s drawing some men there that maybe are getting into other things.”

The final vote to direct staff to proceed with preparations for the sale came with several deed restrictions designed to address those safety concerns. Among them was a clause that forbids men over the age of 18 from staying at the new shelter.

Philanthropist Dick Rathgeber, who sits on the Salvation Army’s Advisory Board, told the commissioners that the new facility will, in fact, be safer because the plans call for a “people-proof” fence around the property.

Davis’ second point, about the location of the facility in his Precinct 1, echoes ongoing complaints that the eastern half of Travis County seems always to be first in line when it comes to placing accommodations for vulnerable, often low-income residents.

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll said it again: I think we need to share in what East Austin is doing, and other parts east of I-35,” Davis said. “We need to make sure to look in other parts of this community. It’s a community issue. It’s not just an East Austin issue.”

Rathgeber reassured Davis that the Salvation Army is looking at other areas of Travis County for other projects. He also said that operating the new facility on the same grounds as the current shelter will save the organization a significant amount of money.

As far as how much money the Salvation Army is ready to pay for the land, that number might remain unknown for some time. After setting the deed restrictions in a closed-door executive session, the commissioners voted 5-0 4-0 (Commissioner Margaret Gómez was off the dais) to proceed with a sealed bid.

Rathgeber assured the court that his organization would bid the pending appraised value of the land. He also revealed that the Salvation Army has raised $6 million for the purchase of the property and the construction of the facility.

When Commissioner Brigid Shea asked if the new shelter would meet the growing demand for emergency support for women and children in Travis County, Rathgeber had an answer for that, too.

“We can’t do everything,” he said before adding, “It’s better to light some candles than it is to curse the darkness.”

This story has been corrected.

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