AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Thursday, Austin City Council members kicked off the first council meeting of the year with two new approaches to addressing homelessness, both of which involve streamlining the path to get people to housing. 

One change will shift the way services are carried out at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) downtown, another will create a new emergency shelter in another location.

Building a new immediate homeless shelter

A resolution brought forward by Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen passed on consent. This resolution directs the city manager to move forward on creating an emergency temporary shelter in Austin for people experiencing homelessness. This is part of a pilot program which has been discussed before but has new momentum considering the focus the council has placed on addressing homelessness in the past year. The city manager will report back to council in May with his findings on how this shelter would work, with the goal of having it up and running by September.

This shelter would not be located where the ARCH is and would offer a different kind of service,  Kitchen explained.  The goal of this shelter would be to provide emergency, temporary shelter to people in need while putting them in touch with resources to access housing. 

“We haven’t identified any particular kind of place, any particular kind of structure, but we have said that it’s absolutely critical we have to have services that connect people to more permanent housing,” Kitchen said. 

The city council acknowledged last year that more homeless individuals are seeking long-term housing than there is housing available for. 

Kitchen said, for example, she spoke with a couple who lived in a tent on a greenbelt while they waited for permanent housing. 

“Austin is seeing an increasing number of people in our community experiencing homelessness,” said Kitchen. “This council has made reducing homelessness a top priority and providing immediate shelter and services is a critical action supported by national and local studies. Austin is a great city, no person should have to live under a highway.”

The city has not identified a location for this shelter yet, a city spokesperson said city staff will be researching public, non-profit and private potential locations over the next three months. 

This shelter will not be located next to any residential areas and the project will be carried out in collaboration with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“It’s urgent, we need to move quickly as a city, and for immediate shelter to connect people to housing,” Kitchen said.  

Significant changes at the ARCH

The ARCH — the place most often associated with Austin’s highest concentration of homeless individuals downtown — will be making a big shift in how it offers shelter services. Thursday, Front Steps (the nonprofit who currently operates the ARCH) was approved by council for a new contract to operate the ARCH for the next five years. This contract is for $13,500,000 and will go into effect April 1.

The new contract comes with an approach that focuses less on the quantity of people coming through the ARCH and more on the quality of help the shelter is providing. The newly approved emergency homeless shelter may take on some of the people who may no longer be helped out by the ARCH’s more streamlined model. 

Currently, the ARCH has 190 beds/mats for overnight sleeping. Under the redesign, there would only be 130 beds/ mats for overnight sleeping. ARCH’s Day Resource Center currently serves 200-300 people per day.

Under the redesign, it would have services available for 130 clients with reserved beds and mats.

Currently, 25- 30 percent of ARCH clients are receiving case management. Under the redesign, 100 percent of ARCH clients will be receiving case management. This change will mean people staying overnight will have the flexibility to come and go and won’t be required to leave early in the morning.

“The difference is all l the indiivduals that are staying at the ARCH will be in case management, and we know that is what leads to success,” said Greg McCormack, the executive director of Front Steps. 

“The ARCH does a lot of things and does a lot of good things:  provides a safe palce for someone who is homeless to come in, get out of the elements get a shower, get a meal,” McCormack continued. “And [this change] this is going to continue to do that but also provide intensive case management to help house more individuals faster.”

 Also under the redesign: instead of a first-come-first-serve system for the shelter, there will be a strategic prioritization system for clients getting bed/mat reservations and services. The success of these changes will be measured by the number of individual clients served, increased exits to permanent housing, reduction in returns to homelessness and percent of shelter clients who receive case management.

“So this requirement will really motivate — hopefully — individuals to come in and engage with us and hopefully get them out of this situation faster,” McCormack said. 

Jerry Thomas Allen, a client at the ARCH said he thinks this new plan for the shelter sounds like a good idea. Allen has been homeless in Austin for 33 years, in October, he decided to start staying at the ARCH and to seek out case management — he said he felt it was time for a change. 

“And the staff here is amazing, they’re my support system,” Allen said. 

Since going to stay at the ARCH, he’s gotten a job and been able to save up some money. 

But he said he feels frustrated because other people he runs into at the ARCH don’t share his goals to get to long term housing.

“I hear stories about people being here ten years and they haven’t made it out yet, I’m about to move out of here,” Allen said, explaining that the ARCH has helped connect him with a grant for housing. 

“It would make a big difference to be surrounded by people who are making an effort,” he added.

ARCH case manager Shawna Arnsen explained that there will be tradeoffs to some of these changes, for example, some of the people who previously stayed inside the ARCH may now sleep outside or be looking elsewhere for resources. Additionally, the ARCH is currently open during the day for anyone to come in and seek help, but under these changes only enrolled ARCH clients will be able to seek help there. 

ARCH is a mens-only shelter, so ARCH management explained that women will no longer be able to seek services there during the day once the changes go into effect. 

“If we have some challenges along the way, I think it would be worth it if ultimately more people are getting more intensive services and the assistance they need to not have the ARCH be their long -term solution,” Arnsen said. 

“The ARCH is not a good long term option for anyone,” she continued. She hopes the new ARCH policies, “motivate individuals and help them see there are options other than at the ARCH and definitively working towards helping them resolve their current homeless crisis.”

Arnesen hopes these changes allow case managers like her to more effectively help a larger number of people.