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Council considering emergency shelter resolution

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 by Jo Clifton

The number of homeless people in Austin continues to grow, yet shelter for these people has not kept pace, according to data gathered by the city and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO. On any given day, there were 836 “unsheltered individuals” in Austin last year, with 7,498 individuals experiencing homelessness from 2017-2018.

As Mayor Steve Adler said Tuesday, “As a Council and as a city, we set homelessness as our first priority.”

The problem of homeless people living without shelter is only growing. According to ECHO, while the number of individuals experiencing homelessness increased by 5 percent from 2017 to 2018, the number of homeless individuals living without any shelter, such as that provided by the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, saw a 21.6 percent increase between 2017 and 2018.

So while the number of people considered homeless grew by just 5 percent, the number of people experiencing the most difficult of circumstances – sleeping outdoors – increased at a much higher rate.

And the problem could get worse within the next year. Council Member Kathie Tovo pointed out during a discussion at Tuesday’s work session that ARCH would be eliminating 60 beds this year due to reorganization of its services. Mayor Adler said ARCH should be “a temporary shelter only,” a place where the homeless can get services and gain permanent housing.

In response to the crisis, on Thursday Council will consider a resolution establishing a timeline for building emergency shelters for the homeless and beginning operations at those shelters by Sept. 30. The timeline is part of a resolution sponsored by Council members Ann Kitchen, Greg Casar, Leslie Pool and Adler.

Kitchen told her colleagues that the point is not only to provide emergency shelter, but to make sure that the shelter is connected to other services and leads to permanent housing for the homeless. The resolution directs the city manager to bring back a report to Council on or before May 2, laying out the best options “for piloting immediate shelter and support services for those experiencing homelessness with the intent of providing a pathway to permanent housing.”

Last fall, when Council approved the budget for the current year, it added $3.4 million for spending on programs to aid the homeless, which was already at $26 million.

Adler said he was looking forward to hiring an additional staff person – dubbed the “homelessness czar” – who would coordinate all of the city’s activities around assisting the homeless. One staff member told the Austin Monitor that the city was currently interviewing applicants for the position.

Council Member Paige Ellis said she thought it was important to make sure that the new shelter pays particular attention to the problems of homeless women, and her colleagues seemed to agree.

Staff will be assessing at least five city-owned buildings and picking one or more as temporary, short-term emergency shelters and providing Council with cost estimates for operation and maintenance of those shelters.

According to the resolution, the city manager must take steps to implement the report. “Such steps shall include preparing to purchase or lease and make ready” a tent or other building structure, including an existing structure.

The resolution is carefully worded so as not to alarm neighborhoods worried about the impact of such a structure. It states that “the structure will be placed or located on property owned by the city or property owned by an entity partnering with the city, but not directly adjacent to existing residential neighborhoods. An exception to this restriction would be allowed if the adjacent neighborhood approved the use.”

The resolution also directs City Manager Spencer Cronk to collaborate with the National Alliance to End Homelessness to learn how to identify people who will stay in the shelters and how to connect them to support services and permanent housing programs. Cronk is expected to put together all the contracts and/or “spending documents” for Council approval on its May 23 agenda.

Photo by Roger Mommaerts made available through a Creative Commons license.

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