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Innovation team sets sights on bedbugs, overcrowding at homeless shelter

Wednesday, March 28, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Innovation Office earlier this month issued a set of recommendations to mitigate serious problems plaguing the 14-year-old Austin Resource Center for the Homeless at East Seventh and Neches streets.

Last week, the office’s so-called i-team briefed the Downtown Commission on the suggestions it put forth in a March 1 memo after months of research. The i-team was created last year with the help of a $1.25 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has funded innovation teams, or i-teams, across the country to help cities improve fundamental services. Austin’s i-team set out last year to look closer into homelessness and, in the first phase of its three-year mission, operations at the ARCH.

Since September, the team has interviewed users and examined the daily procedures at the shelter owned by the city but operated by local nonprofit Front Steps, whose contract is up for review this September. Last year, City Council passed a resolution directing Austin Public Health – the agency in charge of procurement in this case – to reconsider the scope of the work outlined in the contract. To that end, the resolution commissioned the advice of the i-team as well as the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“We welcome that conversation,” Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack told the Austin Monitor on Monday.

Taylor Cook of the i-team told the Monitor that Front Steps has done a “tremendous job” managing the ARCH ever since it opened. However, she added, “We as a city have probably asked them to take on more than is realistic.”

Originally designed for a 100-bed capacity, the ARCH now routinely sleeps 200 men each night, while also taking in scores more to sleep during the daytime. That crush of humanity has taken a toll on the building’s plumbing system, attracted crime to the streets outside, and led to an unfortunate infestation of bedbugs.

“It’s difficult to convince people to go there and sleep on a mat or take on a bunk if they know they might be getting bedbugs,” Cook told the commission last week. “And also we’ve heard that it’s been an issue for staff sometimes too.”

The recommendations call for the eradication of the bugs and maintenance of plumbing and other issues in order to set a quality baseline before any new contract is signed. Further, the i-team suggests separating maintenance services into a separate contract altogether. As for issues outside, the i-team recommends that Front Steps or its replacement “should continue to do outreach outside the ARCH and work with the City and (the Austin Police Department) to have a clear plan and responsibilities to respond to security issues.”

Borrowing a term of the corporate boardroom, the i-team further calls for the new contract to include provisions to “rightsize” the ARCH by reducing its nightly capacity to the original 100 beds while also doing away completely with the day-sleeping program. Freeing up capacity in the building during normal working hours would allow Front Steps or its replacement to take on another i-team recommendation that it help shelter users navigate the various resources offered by the city, other governments, and charity organizations, some of which are co-located inside the ARCH.

To mitigate for scores of people who would not be allowed sleep inside the building should the rightsizing take place, the i-team envisions the city first initiating a search for other organizations interested in filling the gap.

That would involve issuing a formal request for information prior to the solicitation of the new ARCH contract, according to the i-team’s March 1 memo.

“After receiving new information, we might either modify the scope of work for the ARCH or offer a reverse pitch-style competition, where we offer seed money for the development of novel concepts, much like Bloomberg Philanthropies has done for the City,” the memo states.

Responding to Cook’s presentation last week, Commissioner Jennifer Bristol said she was “appalled” by the conditions at the ARCH.

“The only thing you ever hear in the news or covered in the media is the K2 problem and the drug problems that surround in that area, or interactions that happen between citizens on Red River and maybe homeless persons down there,” she said.

Comparing the issue to traffic engineering, Commissioner David Gomez noted that the general public usually does not blanch at the notion of building expensive bridges.

“But we’re talking about the ARCH being a bridge for individuals to go from homelessness to housing and yet no one is willing to invest anywhere close to the amount of money as a piece of concrete and metal,” he said. “And this is about human lives and hope, and I would hope that we begin to change people’s ideas about who these people are and what they deserve.”

Following Gomez’s remarks, the commission voted unanimously to endorse the i-team’s recommendations.

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