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Vote would fund new family violence shelter

Thursday, May 20, 2021 by Jo Clifton

At today’s meeting, Austin City Council members plan to award a contract for up to $8.1 million over four years to the SAFE Alliance to manage and provide services at a city-owned shelter for those experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse. This year’s funding of $2.1 million will be used to convert an existing hotel property that is currently serving as a protection lodge for homeless people at risk of Covid-19.

Kelly White, co-CEO of the SAFE Alliance, said the new program will double the capacity of the group’s shelter. “So that’s huge,” she said, and “desperately needed.”

The funds are part of the money Council reallocated from the Austin Police Department in 2020 in the effort to reimagine public safety.

Council members Greg Casar, Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Paige Ellis and Mayor Steve Adler joined Travis County Attorney Delia Garza and District Attorney José Garza at a press conference Wednesday to explain the significance of today’s vote. Casar noted that this is the city’s first such investment since 2001. He said of his hundreds of votes as a Council member, it would be hard to think of one of which he is prouder. He said over the years he’s gotten calls from constituents looking for support for their neighbors who were experiencing family violence or sexual assault.

“All too often,” he said, “the answer that comes back is that the shelters are full. And the reason so often the shelters are full is because we haven’t made the investments over the course of generations to really take care of those lower-income community members who have no other option and nowhere else to go.”

By purchasing and renovating hotels, Casar said, the city can provide badly needed space that saves lives.

Yvette Rouen, vice president of residential and support services, said on any given day the group’s waitlist could have as many people on it as are currently in the program. On a typical day, she said, they serve about 90 people.

Alter said, “Austin often makes the list for best cities, best city to live, be entertained, get barbecue, listen to live music … but how should we evaluate ourselves? We should be measured by what we do for those on the margins in our community. Our success as a city should be measured by the help we provide and the opportunities we create.”

She pointed out that 10,000 family violence cases were reported in Travis County in 2018 and that number is on the rise. “This contract, along with several other Council actions, represents a significant commitment to address the magnitude of the crisis and end the historic underfunding of these efforts.”

“This is a very important investment in our homelessness response system,” Tovo said. “When survivors of family violence flee abuse they’re often forced to leave their homes very quickly. Faced with limited options for safe, accessible and affordable housing, individuals, and especially women, often have to stay or return to violent relationships. And many also experience the trauma of entering into homelessness.”

Kitchen pointed out that she had served as a rape crisis counselor in the past. “This project really is a great example of what we can do when we think proactively, when we expand our thinking about what public safety is, when we think about how we keep people safe and prevent harm,” she said. It’s important that we think about how to prevent crime, not just react to it after it happens, she added.

Delia Garza, who as a Council member voted to reallocate money from the police budget, now serves as Travis County Attorney. She and District Attorney José Garza (no relation) described changes they have made in their agencies to focus on family violence and try to prevent future violent crimes. To that end, the two offices have established a program to take back firearms.

Mayor Steve Adler, who described himself as a “groupie of this organization,” said its employees are community heroes. Adler’s wife, Diane Land, serves on the board of the SAFE Alliance and is its treasurer. There are a lot of conversations happening right now about public safety and crime, and about homelessness, Adler said. “While people are talking about what they see, not many people are talking about what we should do.” Adler said the public should look at this decision by Council as an example of what should be done to combat crime and homelessness.

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