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City faces tough choices in managing homeless shelter

Thursday, July 28, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City officials were not satisfied with the way the nonprofit organization Front Steps was running the homeless men’s shelter at 500 E. Seventh Street commonly known as the ARCH. Officials notified the organization that all contracts with Front Steps would be discontinued by Sept. 30, according to a city spokesperson.

After deciding to end its agreement with Front Steps, city officials had to find a nonprofit that would be able to take over the ARCH very quickly. Today’s City Council agenda includes negotiation and execution of a contract for Urban Alchemy to run the downtown shelter. The 13.5-month contract is for a little over $4 million and starts on Aug. 15.

“The city of Austin supports a wide array of critical social services for people experiencing homelessness, which are delivered primarily via contractual agreements with community nonprofit organizations,” said a city spokesperson. “The city monitors both programmatic outcomes and the organizational stability of its vendors. Technical support and resources are provided to help organizations fulfill effective services of the highest quality for members of our community.  This need has greatly increased due to environmental and operational challenges due to the pandemic.”

The spokesperson added that Front Steps’ board of directors had “identified a need for an intensive strategy and reimagining of the organization to better prepare its staff and leaders to provide homeless services in the wake of the pandemic.”

While California-based Urban Alchemy has experience helping people in homeless encampments, it is not clear whether it has dealt with a shelter like the ARCH. During Tuesday’s work session, several Council members, including District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, had questions for staff about how they had decided to award the contract to an organization with only four years’ experience, primarily in homeless camps in California.

Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup told Council her staff held an informational meeting with nine organizations to see if they would bid on the contract to replace Front Steps on an emergency basis. Of those attending the meeting, only one bidder – Urban Alchemy – was willing to take on the ARCH.

Tovo asked Sturrup whether the organization had any experience in running congregate shelters like the ARCH. Sturrup noted that congregate shelters are not considered to be the best way to house the homeless. But she said the organization’s leader, Dr. Lena Miller, has some experience in that area.

Sturrup added that Sausalito’s city manager “had nothing but good things to say about the organization’s track record for helping their city with encampments and for providing services in a larger urban area that has homeless services.” She quoted him as saying the group is “well-versed and highly recommended for working in encampments for providing, as he called it ‘humane care’ (but he also) credited them with moving two of their largest encampments in just a matter of days. He described the intentionality, the care, the personal boots on the ground, the relationships they’ve built with the residents of each of the encampments to be able to make that happen. He also alluded to their ability to provide shelter services.”

Urban Alchemy already has one Austin contract, with the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition to work with the Austin Street Outreach Collaborative. According to ECHO, there were 2,506 people experiencing homelessness in Austin in early 2020.

Council Member Leslie Pool noted that there have been complaints from some homeless people in California interacting with representatives of Urban Alchemy. Those complaints were outlined in a news story. She said she wanted to make sure the workers would be properly identified with name tags and Sturrup said they could put that in the contract. Sturrup also said there would be a variety of safeguards, including criminal background checks, which is not part of the usual city process.

Council Member Chito Vela concluded that Council has little choice but to approve the contract since the group was the only bidder on the contract. “If not, Urban Alchemy, then who?” he said. “I think that’s pretty conclusive.”

Whoever has the job of running the ARCH, it won’t be easy, according to Mark Littlefield, who sits on ECHO’s board. “We probably could have put the Pentagon in charge of the ARCH and they would have struggled also because of the financial and facility restrictions that the ARCH has.”

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