Austin (KXAN) — Austin City Council will vote this week on a new homeless shelter proposed for South Austin. This comes as the city looks to take action to reduce what they see as an “obvious increase in the number of unsheltered people in our community.”
Back in January, the council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk’s staff to look into locations for a new shelter that would have a focus on getting people into housing. They’ve decided on a location which is now visible through city documents: 1112 West Ben White Boulevard. It would be on a 1.66-acre tract which is currently occupied by an office building and a parking lot.
That location is across Ben White from St. David’s South Austin Medical Center and less than a mile from Galindo Elementary School.
When council tasked staff with picking a location, they asked that it not be directly next to neighborhoods. Staff says they chose this area by looking at how close it was to people experiencing homelessness, as well as access to public transportation and major healthcare facilities.
Council could vote on the three items related to this shelter on Wednesday or Thursday of this week. The council has made it clear that reducing homelessness is the top priority for them. But on top of being a policy goal, addressing homelessness in the city may also save money. According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), the top high-cost homeless users of crisis services in Travis County cost an average of $222,000 per person annually.
This new shelter would not be a replica of the existing shelter at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (the ARCH) downtown, city staff explained. Unlike the ARCH, this shelter would not be a drop-in location, but rather a place where everyone who stays there is working toward getting to permanent housing. It would not just offer people a place to sleep, but would also focus on providing housing, social services, and resources. This shelter would aim to offer alternatives to living under bridges, in greenbelts, or in alleys.
One of the resolutions at this week’s council meeting would allow the city to purchase the property. The cost is estimated to be up to $8.6 million which would go toward paying for the site. The city explained that if the council chooses to purchase the building, the operating costs would be incorporated into future budgets.
To pay for it, the city plans to use certificates of obligation, which are the type of long-term debt cities can use. The city would repay that amount over a 20 year period. City staff says that there would be no fiscal impact to taxpayers until at least the 2021 Fiscal Year.
Like the ARCH, this new facility will be owned by the City of Austin. The city will need to find a service provider to operate the new shelter.
City staff does not expect this housing-focused shelter to cause an increase in panhandling. This shelter would be on private property, so trespassing there would be prohibited.
The need for shelters
According to Austin’s latest point-in-time count numbers, there are more than 1,000 people sleeping unsheltered on Austin’s streets each night. When you count sheltered and unsheltered people, the numbers have fluctuated around 2,000 individuals for the past nine years, though the numbers have had an upward trend from 2017 onward.
The city acknowledges that Austin does not have enough shelter beds for the people who need them. An informational city document talking about the proposed shelter explains that data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows there are a large number of people who would use an emergency shelter.
Already, an online petition has been started by people who oppose the location of this proposed shelter.
Cleo Petricek launched the petition and posted it the the Nextdoor app just after 11:00 p.m. Sunday night. By Monday morning when she awoke, there were 50 signatures. By 3:30 p.m. on Monday when KXAN visited with her, nearly 200 people were on-board.
“It doesn’t mater what you call it. Homeless will congregate more or it will be a concentrated area in south Austin,” Petricek said. “We need shelters like this all across Austin. Not just south Austin. We need them to be pushed out at the same time. We can’t just have one shelter and have it all concentrated here because that’s how it feels like.”
Another south Austin neighbor, Shawne Whelan echoed those concerns. She just bought a condo nearby. She said this potential facility sparks new fears: lack-of-cleanliness, personal safety and a dwindling re-sale value.
“This is an investment. This is my livelihood. I don’t know what else to do but make some noise,” Whelan said. “I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a shelter, that shelter’s don’t belong in neighborhoods, even. I just wish i was involved, informed.”
But Council Member Paige Ellis feels differently. She has been very involved with this shelter planning process, along with Council Members Ann Kitchen and Pio Renteria. Ellis explained that city staff looked at a few options before they decided on the Ben White location.
“I think our staff did a really good job identifying the best location for this particular project,” she said. “It’s actually really close to affordable housing that is currently built and it’s accessible to transit and it’s also very close to where people are currently homeless so it’s something that they will easily be able to get to it .”
Ellis says that while many people think homelessness is a downtown issue, she believes it’s important to have resources available in South Austin.
“The truth is there’s a lot of people that are in my district experiencing homelessness,” Ellis said. “They want to be away from downtown because it’s a little bit more chaotic, there are even people who will, unfortunately, prey on the homeless downtown. A lot of people come to Southwest Austin, like District 8 or District 5 and they decide to take refuge in creeks, which is unsafe for them because of flooding issues and wildfire issues.”
Ann Howard, the executive director of ECHO, says this new shelter is part of the city’s Action Plan to End Homelessness which calls for the creation of two to four small shelters throughout Austin.
“People experiencing homelessness are forced to move all the time and the data shows there are homeless camps all over Austin and Travis County,” Howard said. “So our hope is that Austin will add resources that are easy to get to and in multiple locations.”
“I think the community will be happy over time when we see fewer people on the street and we hear the success stories of people have been connected to housing,” she added.
She said this is the first time “in a long time” that the city has set out to invest capital dollars and expand a shelter.
Next to the proposed shelter location is an a building with efficiency apartments run by Foundation Communities. Johnny Kirt has lived there since 2013.
Back six years ago when he came to Austin, he was homeless and stayed at the ARCH. But through working with caseworkers, he was able to get enrolled in the Foundation Communities housing.
“I just had to reach out, I couldn’t do it by myself,” he explained, noting that finding stable housing was the key to turning his life around.
He hopes that if the new shelter does come in next door, that people staying in the shelter may get the tools they need to live in Foundation Communities housing, as well. Kirt thinks the Ben White location would be a good spot for a shelter.
“Right here in south Austin, I think it’s great, it’s the best thing we need,” he said.