AUSTIN (KXAN) — Inspectors called to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless found evidence of bed bugs as well as maintenance code violations, according to an Austin Public Health memo released Monday.
The department received complaints about the homeless services and shelter building earlier in the year and periodically sent staff to check in. On Monday, June 18, the Austin Public Health director requested the Austin Code Department to investigate, and investigators went out Friday, June 22.
They found bedbugs, showers that didn’t maintain appropriate water temperature levels, a hole in a bathroom wall and a leaking water valve. They also noted that some fire doors did not have proper closures and some were being propped open when they shouldn’t be. There was also a concern about the occupancy limit of the building.
Austin Public Health and the City of Austin own the facility but contract out the work to Front Steps. APH says they will work together to fix all the issues, many of which are already being addressed.
KXAN asked Greg McCormack, the Executive Director of Front Steps if he thought the bed bugs found in these inspections were acceptable.
“It’s not acceptable,” McCormack said. “We want to have a bedbug-free facility and we’re looking at ways to do that and we might have to change some of our operations to be able to do that, right now we’re just seeing so many people on a daily basis that it’s just been a struggle for us to keep that up.”
He explained 130-190 people sleep at the ARCH each night, many on sleeping mats. Anywhere from 400 to 700 people can go to the ARCH on any given day for resource and McCormack explained they’re welcome to take showers even if they’re not sleeping at the center.
“When the [inspection] team came in we walked around with them, we were aware of some of the items we needed to repair, we’ve addressed a majority of those items already, and continued to try and be in compliance,” said McCormack. “We’re used to getting inspected, and we welcome it.”
He explained that being in a city-owned building means regular inspections, but added that these citations were the first time he’s seen the Code Department get involved during the roughly five years he’s been on staff.
On Tuesday the ARCH had a full-facility pest control treatment. McCormack explained they have tripled their pest control efforts altogether for the past 4 to 5 months since inspections began. ARCH employees started steaming the sleeping mats and wiping them down on a daily basis. On a weekly basis, they began heat -treating mats, which McCormack says is the only way to get rid of the bedbugs — and even then they still return. The ARCH is also heat-treating the floors to help.
McCormack said their hot water heaters are working properly now, though their tankless water heaters do take some patience while waiting for them to warm up. He said the ARCH has also patched all the holes in the walls.
“The bedbug issue is one that we’re concerned about,” he added.
While these fixes do cost more money, McCormack said his team is helped out by the city in making the changes and the ARCH is happy to do it.
KXAN asked why these issued weren’t addressed before the inspection, McCormack explained that he’s only served as executive director for the last 4 months.
“As soon as I came on in this role was when we heat-treated the third floor and started looking at steaming the mats, we’re looking at buying new mats and replacing them on a yearly basis,” he said.
Jamaal Kelley used to be a client at the ARCH in 2010, he said his time there helped him get on his feet and eventually take a job at the ARCH where he now works as a shelter manager.
Kelley knows that disruptions like dealing with bedbugs or leaks can make things harder on people already trying to gain stability.
“I try to be very transparent if you will, I don’t hide the fact that we’re dealing with these issues,” Kelley said. “This is a transient environment, a lot of people in downtown Austin, not just us, deal with these issues.”
Kelley said he tries to explain to clients what their policies are to prevent bedbugs. His end goal is to get them on the same path he did: out of the shelter and into a healthy life with permanent housing.
“It might not look like much, but there’s a lot of love in this building,” Kelley said.
He wants the public to know the ARCH is aware of these problems and the concern surrounding them.
“But we are definitely taking the most aggressive stance in rectifying whatever problems come our way,” he said.
Ann Howard, the Executive Director for Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), said that many of these violations seem very fixable. She added that it’s not surprising to her that the building needs upkeep.
“The arch is a city-owned building, that was built to sleep about a hundred men on every night, but we have asked them at times to sleep about 230 individuals,” Howard explained. “So they’re filling every bunk, they’re on the floor, on mats, in offices in hallways, at one point in the dining hall. So that over use in time has worn our the restrooms and the showers. And the city did invest and fix some of those issues, but i think its ongoing issues that we’re seeing about today.”
Howard noted that building shelters outside of the ARCH and downtown could ease some of the strain on the ARCH’s resources, but at this point, there aren’t enough dollars or any specific locations identified to do that.
Downtown will likely remain the hub for Austin’s homeless services into the future. The City of Austin told KXAN in a statement:
“At this time, no recommendations have been made for additional locations for emergency shelters. As city staff continue to work with our community partners to end homelessness, we are looking at multiple strategies such as additional sheltering operations.”
The most important thing Howard thinks the Austin community can do to address homelessness is to create more long-term housing.
She said the city needs more affordable housing options that welcome in people who may have been homeless before. Howard believes adding this type of housing will help people break the cycle of homelessness and relieve the local shelters.
McCormack also feels the same way, saying that more affordable housing would help get ARCH clients back on their feet.
Howard noted that the city council endorsed Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness this year, which lays out a plan to create more housing. But the plan will also need funding to make headway, she said.
Ann Howard said in the new budget season, the city may be able to change that.
“I’m sure hoping to see a greater investment in social services, focused on services helping people escape homelessness,” she said, noting that the population growth Austin is seeing will make this especially necessary.
The ARCH said they have a 7 day window after the violation was issued to either be in compliance with the city code or have a plan to do so. They are in touch with the city on a daily basis and believe they will meet that deadline.