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Downtown Commission hears fundraising plans for 300 new shelter beds

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

A partnership between the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Austin Chamber of Commerce has identified 14 sites that could become the location for a new large shelter to serve the city’s homeless population.

At last month’s Downtown Commission meeting, representatives from those groups, which are working to register a new nonprofit group called ATX Helps, discussed their fundraising plans and three-part strategy to have a new shelter with at least 100 beds operating by the end of the first quarter. The group was launched in early November and thus far has raised nearly $90,000 toward its goal of $14 million, with a verbal pledge of $1 million.

Bill Brice, vice president of investor relations for the downtown alliance, said the first shelter can be opened once approximately $2 million is raised, with the rest of the fundraising total covering costs of creating at least one additional shelter, a centralized storage facility for people to stow their belongings, and two years of operational expenses.

No site has emerged as a leading choice to locate the shelter, but a team of local real estate and business leaders are working to find the best public or privately owned parcels.

ATX Helps hopes to create 300 new shelter beds to provide immediate assistance to the more than 1,100 chronically homeless people in Austin. Along with creating a storage facility, Brice said the group’s third goal is working with the homeless to reconnect them with family members or other networks that could quickly get them back on their feet without having to rely solely on the city’s patchwork of service organizations.

Brice said the city’s current focus on permanent supportive housing, which launched in June with a since-aborted plan to convert a South Austin office building into a shelter, will take too long to provide relief to those living on the streets.

The “Sprung building” structure that ATX Helps plans to use can be quickly erected on an open piece of land, creating a dormitory-style setting.

“If at that same point in time (in June) the city would have said we’re going with this kind of a facility, we’re going to put it on a city lot, it could have been operating for five months now,” Brice said.

“And yet today we have not one more shelter bed than we did on June 20 when that resolution was passed. We have not one more permanent supportive housing unit, even though the city is moving toward purchasing the Rodeway Inn and trying to pursue other hotels. This could have been up and running, and in the meantime we have people who are out on the streets with no reasonable options.”

Mike Rollins, outgoing president and CEO of the chamber, said the homelessness problem downtown became severe enough to push the two groups to form a task force more than a year ago. Trips to San Diego and Minneapolis to study responses to homelessness showed the dorm-style buildings to be an effective option, with most residents needing 90 to 120 days to transition into permanent housing.

In addition to fundraising for the new shelters, the downtown alliance also helped to raise $400,000 to cover the operational expenses for the newly constructed Salvation Army Rathgeber Center, which will provide shelter for women and families experiencing homelessness. The facility announced this week that it has secured enough funding to open in February.

Commission members were supportive of the push to create more shelter options for the homeless community.

Commissioner David Gomez said there should be consideration to provide parking for those who have been living in their cars and whose vehicle may be their last significant asset. He also advised the group to work with the state government and the services it is providing at a piece of state-owned land in North Austin where the homeless are allowed to camp and safely store their possessions.

“I definitely believe that (having) a place to store belongings and feeling safe and secure is a big deal, and we’re beginning to see at this site that it makes a big difference,” he said. “The offering by you guys to stand up a shelter like that is really important because it will be safe, secure and will provide places for people to store their stuff.”

Clarification: Following publication of this article, the Austin Monitor spoke with Mandy De Mayo, who is the Community Development Administrator in the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. She said:

The City of Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department (NHCD) works closely with community partners to create a range of housing options for people experiencing homelessness. NHCD programs and funding play a crucial role in the city’s overall homelessness strategy. In the fall of 2019, Integral Care opened The Terrace at Oak Springs, which provides 50 units of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for people experiencing homelessness, in addition to extensive on-site services, including counseling, health care, case management, and medication management. The City of Austin – through the Austin Housing Finance Corporation – provided nearly $4 million in capital funding for The Terrace at Oak Springs development.

In addition, in mid-November 2019, Foundation Communities recently opened a new 132-unit family development in the Mueller neighborhood called The Jordan. This property includes 14 PSH units dedicated to the Children’s Home Initiative (CHI). One of Foundation Communities’ signature programs, CHI provides housing and intensive on-site case management services to extremely low-income families who are either homeless or at-risk of homelessness. The City of Austin provided $4 million in funding for this $26+ million affordable development.”

In the past several years, the City of Austin has funded affordable housing developments that include more than 250 PSH units, approximately half of which are “low barrier.” These developments are recently constructed, under construction, or currently in the development pipeline. NHCD looks forward to working with all of our community partners collaboratively to address homelessness through a variety of housing and shelter solutions.”

This story has been changed since publication to correct Brice’s title and fundraising goals. Photo by Danny Ozuna made available through a Creative Commons license.

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