Friday, April 12, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

City begins search to fund new center for homeless families

The city is looking for money in the current budget to help open and operate a recently constructed homeless shelter for families.

At Thursday’s meeting, City Council approved a consent agenda resolution directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to look for possible funding sources to pay for operations at the Salvation Army’s Rathgeber Center for Women and Children in East Austin. The resolution, which did not identify a minimum funding amount needed for the center’s operations and client case management, directs Cronk to produce possible funding sources by June 1.

The consent agenda was passed unanimously with an abstention by Council Member Jimmy Flannigan on the shelter funding item due to concerns over moving forward an ad hoc budget item without a larger plan for how to address the city’s growing homelessness problem.

Flannigan and Council Member Kathie Tovo, who co-sponsored and led the item, debated the issue for several minutes at Tuesday’s work session meeting. On Thursday, Flannigan added his concerns over Salvation Army’s track record with LGBT issues to his reasoning for not supporting the possible funding.

“We are in very broad agreement about the need to address homelessness on this Council,” he said. “I also want to make sure we maximize every tax dollar that we spend and I’ll be interested to hear, as the manager and the staff does their work, how should we work with organizations that are intended to be privately funded and then later come to the city for funding to close the gap, and what does that mean in terms of our involvement and should we be planning in advance for these things.”

The $12 million center is located on Tannehill Road off East Martin Luther King Boulevard on land formerly owned by Travis County, and was funded by a capital campaign led by local developer Dick Rathgeber. It will provide housing and services for more than 200 people, with a focus on helping families with children.

Homelessness services advocates see the facility as key to moving families out of downtown to a more suitable space with some suite accommodations with bathrooms and kitchens and allowances for longer stays in some cases, allowing existing downtown facilities to take overflow clients from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

“We look forward to finally meet the critical need caused by the urgent closure of the downtown family residence and the waitlist of up to 200 persons,” said Andrew Kelly, area commander for the Salvation Army. “This initiative is a win-win for our community and for families experiencing homelessness. We absolutely must get the children out of the downtown area and into safer shelter and put an end to families sleeping in their cars.”

At a press conference prior to Thursday’s meeting, Tovo was joined by several local advocates for the homeless. There she said the city’s affordable housing trust fund is one possible source of funding to direct to the new center.

Thursday’s move came as the city is relaunching a search for a permanent head of homelessness services to coordinate funding and programs between city departments.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who co-sponsored a recent resolution calling for the city to find more shelter space for the homeless, said it is important for the city to act in the short term while working on a long-range plan for solving homelessness.

“I hear what Council Member Flannigan is saying about wanting to connect the dots, which I think is really important and I’m looking forward to our homeless strategy officer helping us do that,” she said. “I have no concerns about this being needed and I know it rises to the top, but it is important for us to have an overarching strategy and an implementation plan for the many things we’re doing around homelessness, which are not sufficient at this point in time.”

Photo by Cpl. Timothy Childers.

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