Hotels to housing: CARES Act dollars to help transition those experiencing homelessness


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Jayme Kuhn has been on various housing waitlists for the last three years.

“I’m signed up with several associations,” she said. “And I’m still sitting here.”

She said a friend has been living in one of Austin’s protective lodges — the City of Austin took over these hotels during the pandemic to temporarily house people who were especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

“She’s been in there six months,” said Kuhn of her friend, noting that she herself would welcome the opportunity to stay in one of the five “pro lodges.”

During an update to the Austin City Council’s Public Safety Committee, city staff said 530 formerly homelessness individuals have been moved into these hotels.

Armed with millions of federal coronavirus relief dollars, Austin plans to transition them into housing.

The city received $17 million from the state and federal government through the CARES Act. The money will be used in this rapid re-housing effort.

The work has already begun but it’s expected to ramp up in the next couple of months. City staff told council members 42 people have transitioned from the hotels into housing thus far.

Matt Mollica, Executive Director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), says the $17 million will provide a boost to the city. For perspective, he said Austin’s usual budget for rapid re-housing sits around $1 million annually.

“Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a public health crisis for people to realize how important housing is,” he said.

Mollica said he anticipates these hotels will play a role in the future of transitioning individuals out of homelessness.

For now, members of the population who are older or immune compromised get first priority to stay in the pro lodges. The recommendation can come from a shelter or outreach worker.

The waitlist to get into them is extensive. The pro lodges have remained full, with the average stay of each individual exceeding 120 days, Mollica said.

While the city and its service providers now have more money to transition people into housing more rapidly, barriers to housing remain.

Kuhn noted that she’s had a housing voucher for months, but isn’t easily able to cash it in.

She pointed to a list of apartments Austin’s Housing Authority, or HACA, provided her. She said some apartments require an application fee of up to $250. Many of them have requirements she doesn’t meet.

“Any applicant with more than two felony convictions will be denied,” she read. “I have nine. So that tells me right there there’s no sense in me even filling this out.”

Kuhn said her criminal history is comprised of mainly drug possession charges. She says she’s been clean from a heroin addiction for the last three years.

When asked about these housing barriers, Mollica says service providers and advocates are working to change landlords’ and property managers’ attitudes about potential tenants with criminal histories.

“I think that’s an education opportunity for us,” he said.

While Mollica says the city tries to provide incentives to these properties, landlords are only obligated to follow stricter lookback laws from the state of Texas.

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