Austin’s new strategy for housing the homeless: acquiring hotels

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — At a work session meeting for Austin City Council Tuesday, city leaders made it clear that the city intends to house the homeless by acquiring and renovating hotels.

MORE: City of Austin to forgo creation of Ben White homeless shelter

“We believe it’s a winning strategy and truly it’s gonna turn the corner with how we address homelessness,” said Assistant Austin City Manager Rodney Gonzalez to the council.

The council was being briefed on this new strategy ahead of Thursday’s council meeting where they are slated to vote on whether to buy and renovate the Rodeway Inn motel off of I-35 and near Oltorf Street. The city would spend $8 million.

(KXAN/Alyssa Goard)

This particular motel will offer shelter for around 80 individuals.

“81 units is a good number, we feel that we need more to adequately address the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness,” Gonzalez said.

He later added that the city is looking into purchasing more hotels or motels as well, but that real estate details are not public and will be discussed at the council’s executive session.

While the city will pay to purchase the building, Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) has volunteered to pay for the operational costs. According to the city, ECHO was the only entity that volunteered to pay to operate this new shelter. ECHO says they don’t have the cash on hand currently, but they are willing to fundraise.

How the shelter will work

ECHO’s executive director, Matt Mollica, said he has run similar shelter operations in Denver and San Francisco where he has also worked in homeless outreach.

“I think it’s an important step,” Mollica said. “Because it’s part of the homeless response system that we didn’t currently have in play.”

“My hope is that once council approves [the proposal] on Thursday, we can access some of the empty rooms immediately — as in the week after,” Mollica explained. “It provides immediate impact. Gets people off the street immediately.”

Mollica told KXAN ECHO has asked people experiencing homelessness how they’d feel about staying in motels.

“One thing that’s been consistent: their desire to be inside,” he said. According to Mollica, 100% of the homeless people ECHO has spoken to about this said they would use hotels for shelter if given the option.

ECHO hopes the converted Rodeway Inn will offer immediate shelter for Austin’s homeless as well as a place for service providers like psychiatrists and substance use counselors.

Long-term, he said they could turn it into permanent housing.

“The key is listening to people that are accessing this space, people experiencing homelessness. What do they want out of it? Do they want this to be a long-term solution for them? Or do they just need some immediate relief, get connected to resources and move on?” he said.

Mollica continued, “In this option, we’ll get people inside immediately. It’ll be low-barrier access, and if they don’t want to leave the space, they can stay, and we can create permanent housing out of the hotel units. And then replicate that across other hotels in other parts of the city.”

However, ECHO will need to fundraise to generate the long-term operating costs and to help assist people who are not already covered by Austin’s homeless service providers. ECHO anticipates they will need two years of fundraising before they can charge rent for the spaces in the motel.

The new information about the hotel acquisitions also came with an announcement from city leadership that the city would no longer be working to purchase a building for and create a homeless shelter at Ben White. A City of Austin spokesperson explained this decision was made recently when the Rodeway Inn became available to use as a shelter.

“The use of the Rodeway Inn motel presents itself as an immediate housing option whereas that was not the case for the South Austin Housing Center,” the spokesperson explained. The city added that the Rodeway Inn is currently operating as a motel, so it can easily be converted and used immediately as “bridge housing.”

“I’m just really thankful to see it,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said of this hotel deal being on the table. “My sense is is that with this, we begin to turn the corner on dealing with this challenge.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, whose district housed the proposed Ben White shelter location, noted in the work session that, “it makes a lot of sense to use motels.”

She asked Mollica about the services that would be available at the motel-converted-shelter.

Mollica said that having services available at the shelter would be “crucial to the success” of this model and that in particular there will be a need to have a space for healthcare service providers like psychiatrists and substance management counselors.

Who will stay in the motel?

While the motel could house around 80 people at one time, Mollica explained that over the course of a year, it could help hundreds. He said that in communities that have utilized similar models, the average amount of time people stay at these shelters is 90 days.

Even though people are expected to cycle out of the shelter in a short period of time, Mollica said the city needs to account for the fact that some people may not.

“Folks will be able to stay there as long as they desire to,” he said. “There will be some folks that identify the hotel as a long-term solution. We need to be flexible and allow that to be the case.”

Mollica said that the city will not require any sort of background checks for people to enter the shelter and will not require people to pay any money upfront. He added there will be no requirement for sobriety in this shelter. Mollica noted that some conduct that will be prohibited for people staying there such as violence against others.

People also will be allowed to keep their pets at this shelter, Mollica said. That is significant because some people experiencing homelessness opt not to stay at shelters downtown because they have been told they would have to part with their pets to do so.

“We’re going to get people inside and then bring the supportive services to their front door, and then [bring those services] every day, over and over again, and ask [them], ‘are you ready now? Are you ready to engage in your primary care? In your case management?’ and offer those services to them in that space while they’re healing and off the street.”

Mollica says one of the things ECHO has identified that the Austin community needs is low-barrier housing that can ultimately be transformed into permanent supportive housing.

Moving forward on this hotel deal and future potential deals, Mollica says, “it’s a good step, it’s one step, I think there’s a lot more work to do.”

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