State leaders approve lease for ATX Helps to build temporary homeless shelter


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Transportation Commission unanimously agreed to lease state-owned land to ATX Helps, for them to build a temporary homeless shelter.

With the lease approved at Thursday’s meeting, ATX Helps can move forward with plans to bring in the city’s first Sprung shelter: a large, tent-like structure that can be put up in as little as eight weeks.

ATX Helps will pay the state $1 a month for the next 10 years to lease the land near U.S. Highway 183 and Montopolis. The lease allows for three different five-year renewals.

As far as other funding for site, ATX Helps said they will shoulder the cost of constructing the shelter and maintaining the services. The coalition between the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Austin Chamber of Commerce has been fundraising since last year.

Initially, they are looking to purchase the shelter and outfit 150 beds for a minimum of two years. The cost? $5.5 million dollars.

Ultimately, the goal is to fund 300 beds for two years at a cost of $14 million.

Bill Brice, Vice President of Investor Relations for the Downtown Austin Alliance, said they are looking to meet the first goal “as soon as possible.”

He said that so far they’ve raised $1.5 million.

“But the question that a lot of donors have raised is, ‘Where will this be? Where will this happen?'” Brice said. “Today’s action certainly makes the identification of a site and the potential to move forward a lot more real. So, we hope that fundraising will ramp up at this point.”

Brice said today’s vote will also allow them to begin conversations with the approximately 140 people currently living on the land at a site.

They call the area Camp RATT, which stands for Responsible Adult Transition Town.

One Camp RATT resident told commissioners he was against this lease. He said residents have proposed a counter-offer of $1 per person per month to lease the property.

“We have plans and visions for self-management that is inexpensive and effective to encourage campers out of the streets,” Robert Rhodes told the commissioners.

Rhodes said he has lived at Camp RATT “since day one.” He said he wants to see more camps like theirs where people can manage themselves.

On Saturday, the community at Camp RATT organized and filed paperwork to become their own non-profit.

“We know that that not everyone will accept shelter,” Brice said. “We believe this is a healthier environment than camping in places that are not meant for habitation, with showers, laundry facilities, restrooms and other needs.”

He said this would be Austin’s only “true low-barrier” shelter, accommodating more people with pets and a partner or spouse.

When pressed by commissioners, Brice told commissioners that ATX Helps “hopes” to coordinate with these residents and their non-profit moving forward.

Bill Brice of ATX Helps discussing the future of Camp RATT with resident Robert Rhodes (Avery Travis/KXAN)

Several other residents told us they were not willing to work with ATX Helps, and they’ve started a petition with 50 signatures of people against the change.

“Please don’t do this to us. We don’t want to live in a domed tent. There is not 99 other people that live there that we want to sleep next to,” one resident said.

Brice said that current residents would not be displaced during the construction phase of this project.

“The shelter footprint is approximately 210 ft. x 60 ft. with a perimeter around it to have other necessary services,” Brice said. “With a nearly 7 acre site, this will only occupy a small piece of that and should provide minimal disruption to the rest of the site.”

President and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance Dewitt Peart said the hope is “once they see the shelter, they would recognize the advantages.”

Peart went on, “We think that living in tents long-term is not a solution to solving homelessness. That’s what this shelter is about. It’s a navigation center: bringing a roof over someone’s head, getting them safe and established to move along whether it be into transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, or reuniting them with family. That’s the goal.”

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