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Downtown Commission wants city to open three new homeless shelters by 2020

Tuesday, May 21, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The Austin Downtown Commission wants the city to push harder to create homeless shelters outside of downtown, asking City Council to create three satellite facilities by September 2020.

The directive came as part of a recommendation passed unanimously at last week’s Downtown Commission meeting.

The resolution asks Council to enforce a late-May deadline for City Manager Spencer Cronk to report back on a plan to open a new shelter this fall, with two more coming online one year later. It also calls for creating a database of area services for the homeless by this November, and making the newly created director of homeless strategy a direct report to Cronk’s office.

The resolution came after a presentation on the evolving state of homelessness in Austin given by Bill Brice, vice president of operations for the Downtown Austin Alliance, and Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Justin Newsom.

At the meeting, Veronica Briseño, interim homeless strategy director, informed the commission that Cronk’s office is planning to deliver its report on the first new pilot shelter by the end of the month. That will likely lead to a Council work session item on June 4 and a resolution for the June 6 meeting that will allow Council to make any budget amendments needed to fund the pilot shelter, which was called for in a January resolution with a September deadline to have the new facility operating.

Brice and Newsom said much of Austin’s ongoing problem with serving the homeless is a result of downtown’s Austin Resource Center for the Homeless being the only shelter option, with no new public shelter beds added to the city in 15 years. APD, Integral Care and Central Health all show that between 7,500 and 10,000 people per year experience at least temporary homelessness and require some sort of assistance.

Brice said that the most problematic portion of the homeless population is the chronically homeless, who tend to be the most unsheltered and suffer from health or substance abuse issues. He said it is hoped that the addition of more shelter options outside of downtown, plus a shift in services at ARCH to move people into permanent housing, will gradually move people off the streets, with money from the private sector being a key piece of the puzzle.

“How (the pilot shelter) would operate, who it would serve and all the particulars are still being worked on,” he said. “Once we start to get there and the city says this is what we’re able to do,” they will ask the private sector for support.

Commission members asked what other changes would be in store at ARCH, with Brice saying the city will need to find other options for providing laundry, restrooms and other facilities currently offered there because the gradual shift toward case management will make those services unavailable.

Newsom said the addition of small, geographically distributed shelters throughout the city would make it easier for APD and other organizations to stay in contact with homeless people, allowing them to get assistance and be moved into permanent housing.

“As our officers go out to address the camps they can run people off, they can take people to jail, write citations, partner with Integral Care to attempt to do a variety of things, but at the end of the day, there’s nowhere for the folks to go. You can make them tear down their tents all day long and ask them to move along from the sidewalks, but you have nowhere to tell folks to go to.”

Photo by Clay Junell made available through a Creative Commons license.

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