AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin is exploring options to offer more places to store the belongings of people experiencing homelessness.
At a work session of Austin City Council Tuesday, Austin Resource Recovery told council members the city is in the beginning stages of planning possibilities for this storage effort.
Many homeless service providers in Austin emphasize that not having a place to store possessions places a huge burden on people experiencing homelessness — whether that means people attempt to carry all their things with them as they go to get services or that their possessions are exposed and can get stolen overnight.
“One of the things we have noted is that storage is a beneficial service for those experiencing homelessness, a few of the benefits include protecting people’s assets from either theft or loss,” said Ken Snipes, the director of Austin Resource Recovery.
Snipes told the council, ARR is looking at possibilities such as using a larger warehouse-type storage facility, which he said is a best practice nationwide.
The primary location the city is looking at for a larger storage operation is at a parking garage of the HealthSouth building. Council Member Natasha Harper Madison’s staff explains that the Health South location is in her district, behind the old Brackenridge Hospital and across from the Sobering Center.
Snipes said that the city hoped to open up that facility for storage in March, but that may be delayed as city staff is currently working through a fire code compliance issue at the Health South location.
“But other than that we think we can move forward with setting that site up for storage,” Snipes said.
He noted that the warehouse-model for storage has been used with success in San Diego and that Austin has been reaching out to San Diego and other cities for guidance.
Currently, ARR is considering the possibility of having around 300 storage bins at the HealthSouth location.
Storage bins at the ARCH
This storage program has already been accomplished in Austin on a small scale.
ARR explained to KXAN that they’ve already given Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) 60 carts to store belongings in. Now, ARR says they have 624 additional carts to help the ARCH with keeping the possessions of those experiencing homelessness.
Greg McCormack, the executive director of front steps who operates the ARCH, explained that the initial 60 carts were previously used for ARR’s recycling program. He said these were donated in October when the city began the “Guided Path” project (aiming to get more of the people who sleep outside downtown into shelter and services.
McCormack said he asked for some new, unused carts and was excited that this next round of carts are new and painted purple — Front Steps’ color and the color city staff are continually associating with efforts to address homelessness.
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26-year-old Chad Goodrow stays at the ARCH’s shelter.
He spoke with KXAN Tuesday.
Goodrow uses one of these 60 bins at the ARCH to store his possessions. Initially, he said it was tough to trust someone else to hold onto his things, but now the storage bin gives him peace of mind.
“It really helps, the fact that you’re walking around the street with less stuff on your back keeps us from hauling too much stuff on our backs and getting fatigued,” Goodrow said.
“Going to work is a lot easier, we can put our stuff away and go to work without having to worry about having our shampoo and soaps and whatever else blankets we use for sleeping, we can just have a regular bag full of stuff for work,” he said
Goodrow explained he had been sleeping on the street outside of the ARCH for two weeks, trying to find a place to live with no success. He came to the ARCH looking for help and was placed into the Guided Path program, which is offering him shelter and helping him get on the path to long-term housing.
Other storage options
In addition to the warehouse storage option and the bins at the ARCH, Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department has purchased several shipping containers they will use to store the belongings of people experiencing homelessness who they encounter as they perform cleanups.
These shipping containers will also be available to other city departments as well, ARR said. The city has also talked about the possibility of adding in lockers to store possessions, looking at models that resemble either gymnasium.
Outside of the HealthSouth location, Snipes said that no other spots have been identified yet as storage locations, though the city hopes to find more lockers or transit storage lockers.
He also noted that it will be important to pick a storage site where people will actually go to, which may require the need for storage options around the cities.
Snipes explained that the city is still weighing whether the best strategy for a storage facility would be to have a place that is actively staffed or an offsite storage spot where people can request to access their things at a later time.
A total cost estimate of this effort has not been made, Snipes said. ARR is still working to put a plan together to bring it before the council.
Snipes believes adding these storage containers would be significant for Austin’s homeless.
“One of the things we hear from time to time is that homeless people need somewhere to store their things when they go look for jobs,” he said. “It gives them a place where they have peace of mind that their things are going to be safe and that they’re going to be there when they return.”
Austin Resource Recovery is also the department that oversees the cleanups around the city related to homelessness, which are still ongoing.
The city’s Violet Bag program and litter cleanups are taking place twice a week and encampment cleanups are taking place twice a month, Snipes said. ARR says they coordinate with TxDOT, who has been cleaning homeless encampments beneath state overpasses in Austin since November 2019 at the Direction of Governor Abbott.
“I think the efforts have been effective,” Snipes said of the city’s cleanup work. “We’ve established a cadence now where we service the problematic areas on a regular basis, we’re hearing from the public they’ve seen a difference.”
“We are going to continue to do more work, we’re still exploring opportunities to do it a little more efficiently, and we will continue the work going forward,” he added.