Travis Co. leaders want to expand mental health services downtown — but it will take some bargaining


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County leaders want to expand mental health services downtown. They’ve identified a spot they say can be used to provide help to people who are homeless in Austin.

In return, it will help the county get one step closer to renovating the Expo Center.

But there’s other interest in the property. Both Travis County and the City of Austin see potential in the old Health South Building on 13th and Red River.

The Health South building was once privately owned, but now it sits vacant. The Sobering Center is next door and Dell Seton is two blocks away.

“We’ve really worked hard to expand options for both in-patient and out-patient care for those suffering from mental illness and substance use disorder,” says Travis Co. Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

The city-owned property is the latest bargaining chip Travis Co. has suggested in a mission to renovate the Expo Center. The multipurpose facility can’t be redeveloped until the county gets ownership of the land it’s on. It’s currently owned by the city.

The county has offered to swap it with the Palm School in downtown Austin, which the city is interested in to help with the potential expansion of the convention center.

Judge Eckhardt envisions using the property on Red River as an expansion to the nearby Sobering Center, which can clean up the streets and divert Austin’s homeless from emergency rooms and jail. She said it would be a “hub” to provide behavioral health services to low income families and people who may have mental health or substance abuse disorders.

“It would be advantageous to the hospital, it would be advantageous to the court system, it would be advantageous to the people who are suffering,” says Eckhardt.

The Sobering Center has made a big impact in its first year. There have been more than 2,000 admissions. Nearly a quarter of those were people who are experiencing homelessness.

The Sobering Center’s hope is to eventually pick up people who need services, rather than having officers drop them off there.

Eckhardt admits — all this would come at a cost for taxpayers. But she says it’s nothing compared to what we’re already paying in jail costs.

“The jail is the de facto shelter when an individual can’t or won’t go into services,” explained Eckhardt. “It would be more humane, effective, efficient and fair to spend those public dollars in a health care setting,”

Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo, an outspoken supporter of reaching an agreement to maintain the historic Palm School, said she is on-board with striking a deal with the county.

“This is a building that I think serves both the city and the county well,” Tovo said. “The city is getting some appraisals of the land to make a formal offer.

However, she said Eckhardt’s idea, while noble, isn’t the best use of the property to benefit our area. Tovo pointed to two resolutions passed within the city council indicating support for redeveloping Health South for affordable housing.

“I think it’s a good example of their ideas, and partnerships could be something we work on together, but I do see it as an important site for housing,” says Tovo. “I wouldn’t support selling or trading that property.”

At this point, it’s just an option for the city to consider while the two parties negotiate a deal. Until then, the building will remain closed.

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