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As Covid numbers improve, city eyes increasing homeless shelter capacity

Monday, March 14, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

As Covid-19 infections and other public health indicators related to the pandemic continue to improve locally, City Council members want advocates for the area’s homeless population to look at increasing capacity at shelters around the city.

At a recent joint meeting, City Council members and Travis County commissioners looked at whether the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and the Salvation Army’s Austin Shelter for Women and Children could be prepared to return to full capacity, or close to it. Shelters were early hot spots for virus transmission when the pandemic took hold two years ago, leading to a decision to reduce capacity.

Council Member Chito Vela said ongoing work by the city to disperse homeless encampments creates a greater need for beds in area shelters.

“There have been a number of encampment removals, and because of Prop B that is going to continue,” he said. “I am interested in getting additional capacity in the shelter available for our homeless population, so I am interested to know what you all are thinking in terms of shelter capacity and what triggers we are looking for to increase that capacity.”

As a follow-up, Council Member Kathie Tovo asked health officials what organizations such as Front Steps and the Salvation Army are required to do through their contracts with the city related to restoring capacity. She wondered what thresholds around infection rates and hospitalization would signal that it is time to return to normal capacity.

Medical Director Desmar Walkes said she and other public health leaders are looking at the data related to Covid and the area’s homeless population before announcing any changes in capacity, though a recent expansion at ARCH would allow that facility to begin serving more people soon.

“There is an increased risk with the virus, particularly as we have a population where vaccine status is not clear because we aren’t able to obtain good information,” she said. “With the new space that is available, we’re hopeful we’ll be able to increase our shelter capacity and also encourage vaccinations to the people experiencing homelessness that are using the shelter.”

Adrienne Sturrup, director of Austin Public Health, said the city has recently talked with Front Steps about the new floor plan for ARCH and how the space could be used, though no recommendation has been made about a higher occupancy level.

“On the face, contractually, we could amend our agreement to make those requirements more stringent. But in the spirit of partnership, and wanting to support good public health practice, we’re not wanting to make a decision that has an unintended health consequence,” she said. “I’d want to weigh everything carefully with good public health guidance to make sure we’re not causing any undue burden in that community.”

Vela said the city needs to keep in mind the negative health consequences of people living on the streets instead of having the option of a shelter bed.

“I understand the homeless are a vulnerable population with a lot of preexisting conditions, but the balance seems to be that being homeless would be more of a danger,” he said. “A lot of folks would never go to a congregate shelter, but a lot would go, and if we have 2,000 folks on the streets and about 200 spots in those shelters, 50 or 60 people on the streets now would take those spots if the capacities were lifted.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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