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Council vote OKs move to open homeless housing center in South Austin

Friday, June 21, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s second homeless shelter will be located in South Austin, as a result of a unanimous vote by City Council on Thursday to approve the purchase of an office building that will be converted into a 100-bed facility, possibly by the end of the year.

The approval of three resolutions gives city staff direction to allocate $8.6 million from the Real Estate Services capital budget and authorizes the purchase of the 1.66 acre property on 1112 West Ben White Blvd. near Banister Lane.

The public comment period preceding the vote saw more than an hour of comments, many from residents who objected to the move on grounds the facility would create an environment like that of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless in downtown Austin. Many speakers shared stories of increasing aggression from homeless people already congregating in the area, many of whom live in or near campsites located beneath expressways. Those campsites, as well as the growing frequency of homeless people living in wooded areas and waterways and the growing crowd looking for overnight shelter at the ARCH downtown, prompted Council to take action to open its first new shelter since ARCH opened in 2004.

Earlier plans from Council had called for the city to purchase a vacant property in the area, with transitional housing for homeless residents offered in temporary structures that could be constructed quickly, with the goal of opening by the end of September. Staff research found that purchasing an existing building was likely to offer better housing conditions and would preserve the city’s investment over the long term.

During her remarks ahead of the vote, District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen explained that the facility located in her district would have spaces reserved for clients on a referral basis from the social services network, keeping it from operating as a drop-in shelter like ARCH. Staffers will also be directed to create a plan for monitoring and protecting the area to keep the homeless who aren’t residents from camping or loitering on the property.

“Whether you’re for a shelter or not, I hear everyone talking about the concerns that we all have for the South Austin area, and it’s not just in South Austin, it’s in other parts of the city now. We are way past time to really come to grips with the issues in our community around homelessness,” Kitchen said.

“People are concerned that a housing-focused shelter will make the problem worse. And I understand that concern. I think there are things we must do to make sure that doesn’t happen, and I think we can and we must because letting the situation stay the way it is and letting people continue to live in a place where they’re not safe and healthy is not humane.”

Other Council members speaking ahead of the vote applauded Kitchen – who is term-limited and ran unopposed in November – for leading the effort to open a shelter in her district. Several on Council noted that in the future, other areas of the city will likely have to take similar action to offer shelter facilities to serve the area’s homeless.

Estimates vary from different sources but in general the city’s homeless population is believed to be between 1,000 and 2,000 people at any one time, with more than 7,000 people experiencing either temporary or long-term homelessness over the course of a year.

Currently, operations at ARCH are being restructured to provide ongoing case management and a path to housing and other services, in an attempt to move chronically homeless people into permanent housing.

The city is also near the end of the hiring process for a manager of homelessness services to coordinate efforts in various city departments.

Mayor Steve Adler said action to open housing centers as well as other homelessness-related initiatives needs to take place throughout the city to avoid the fate of cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco where homelessness has become a critical health and quality-of-life problem.

“All over the city, people are saying that the status quo, whatever it is you’re doing now, is not working and you have to do something else,” Adler said. “We don’t have to study it anymore because we’ve already studied this so many times. We know what the answers are. We know what the experts tell us to do, and the only question for us is whether or not we have the political will to put the resources against it and the political and community will to take those steps.

“I cannot participate any longer in not acting. I cannot participate any longer in not setting up the structure and the system to fundamentally do something to change the status quo in the city, because the status quo on this issue is killing us.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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