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City eyes two sites as finalists for homeless encampments

Friday, July 2, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Two pieces of city-owned property have been identified as potential sites for homeless encampments, with an analysis of possible zoning issues preceding the disclosure of where the sites are located.

The estimated cost of preparing the sites with the utilities and other services needed to safely help the local homeless population range from $1.33 million to $1.66 million. The city initially had a list of 78 properties that were considered for encampment sites, seen as the most achievable way to address widespread homelessness that was made illegal again with the passage of a May ballot proposal.

A city memo distributed Thursday provided a number of updates on steps the city is taking to establish temporary “bridge” housing around Austin, with the goal that those living there will be gradually moved into permanent housing with needed social services.

The city has also moved ahead with plans to convert one of its leased ProLodge shelters, which were used to house Covid-19-infected individuals, into a second bridge shelter that will have 300 beds for those looking for permanent housing. The shelter, located on North Interstate 35 near St. David’s Medical Center, was leased on June 25 and is being paid for with $4.2 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan money.

“We’ve said all along we will not lose sight of the need to create real solutions to help people get back into permanent housing, with the services they need to stay there, but we also recognize the immediate need for a safe place to sleep until that happens,” Dianna Grey, the city’s homeless strategy officer, said in a prepared statement.

“The creation of a second bridge shelter, and efforts to increase the community’s emergency shelter capacity, demonstrate our commitment to providing alternatives for people experiencing homelessness in Austin.”

Another ProLodge shelter was opened in mid-June in South Austin at an initial cost of $3.8 million. Twenty of the 75 available beds were in use by people who had previously camped near the Terrazas Branch Library on East Cesar Chavez Street.

City-owned parking sites are also being evaluated for use by homeless people who sleep in their cars. The memo didn’t include details on the number or location of sites under consideration, but it is looking at well-lit parking areas with at least 50 spaces. Installing restrooms, hand-washing stations and security is expected to cost $80,000 per year, with a further update to Council on the selection and public engagement process later this month.

In addition to allowing tents owned by visitors, city staffers are examining the possibility of creating tiny homes on the encampment site, as well as using a large dormitory-style Sprung shelter that could be created quickly and hold around 300 beds at a cost of just over $300,000 plus operating expenses.

The various tiny homes options under consideration would cost from $5,000-$10,000 per unit, with a setup time for each of around 30 days.

The Homeless Strategy Division is looking at how to expand existing shelters, with 125 more beds expected to become available. That number could climb to 300 if previous capacity restrictions tied to Covid-19 are relaxed, with Aug. 8 as a target date for increasing capacity.

The next update to City Council, including locations and other details about the potential encampment sites, is expected on July 22.

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available through a Creative Commons license.

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