Long-awaited Salvation Army center for families experiencing homelessness opens Wednesday

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Salvation Army Austin’s new shelter for families experiencing homelessness families is finally ready to offer beds and support.

The Rathgeber Center for families opened Wednesday and offers entirely housing-focused, client-directed case management services. 

“When it comes to families, you’re affecting two generations of homelessness, the parent and then the children and when a child comes into a shelter they think it’s part of their normal day-to-day activity but unfortunately, it is not a way of life,” Corey Leith, the communications director for the Salvation Army of Austin, said.

Crews first broke ground on this center in June 2017 and held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in June 2019, but the building sat empty until now.

After months of delaying the opening due to financial shortcomings, hurdles with legal documents, and staffing, the Salvation Army was able to secure $2.3 million to operate the new shelter through September.

Salvation Army officials said the City of Austin provided $1 million in a one-time grant, Integral Care and the Downtown Austin Alliance each pledged $500,000 with the rest coming from private donations and grants.

“We’re celebrating today but we go back to work tomorrow and continue our fundraising efforts,” Leith said.

Financial hurdles

Last fall, the nonprofit faced backlash nationwide after alleged discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Salvation Army officials in Austin said that did not impact their fundraising efforts and said in a statement, “Every so often, throughout the year, (the Salvation Army) sees several misconception reports on social media regarding the Salvation Army’s mission and people who identify with the LGBTQ+ community.”

Officials added, “nondiscrimination is essential” to the nonprofit’s “mission and the people we serve.”

The Salvation Army offers training and has gender identity policies specifically “working with transgender and nonbinary clients to ensure they are not being discriminated against.”

“We serve everyone in our community, with special consideration to the LGBTQ+ community, who is at higher risk for homelessness,” the statement read.

It is estimated, the center will require $4.7 million to operate annually and the Salvation Army will need to raise those funds by October.

“We are very confident that we can raise that money for the next fiscal year and the year after,” Leith said. “I think as the community becomes more aware of the Salvation Army program it’s going to become less difficult to obtain those funds.”

Beds at Salvation Army’s Rathgeber Center. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

At the Rathgeber Center, there will be different types of housing available for clients depending on their needs.

For those who only need shelter for a month or two, there are 40 emergency shelter rooms and 120 beds. These emergency beds will be available to use Wednesday.

Salvation Army will take around 90 more days to roll out the second portion of the center, which will include 23 extended stay rooms with 92 beds for those staying an average of six months. Leith explained that these extended stay rooms will fill up over time as Salvation Army figures out which families need those longer-stay beds the most. He said these longer-stay beds are for families who have higher barriers to getting into housing, whether they are fleeing domestic violence or experiencing a credit issue.

When the Rathgeber center is complete, it will offer a total of 212 beds (the 92 extended stay beds plus the 120 emergency beds).

Salvation Army expects this shelter will serve 664 people annually, including 434 children. Additionally, Salvation Army anticipates that more than 200,000 meals will be provided at Rathgeber.

A playground at Salvation Army’s Rathgeber center for families. (KXAN Photo/ Candy Rodriguez).

Salvation Army will start the process of moving families from its existing downtown shelter to the Rathgeber Center on Wednesday. Currently, Salvation Army Austin has 14 families (a total of 55 people) at the Family Residence wing of their downtown shelter. Five of those families who are expected to need more time to get permanent housing will be the first to move into the Rathgeber center on Wednesday.

The other families are weeks away from getting permanent housing through case management, Salvation Army said.

With this shift of clients in their shelters, Salvation Army plans to open up more space to help single adults experiencing homelessness at their downtown shelter which has a total of 242 beds.

Those staying at the Rathgeber Center will have access to rapid rehousing programs on-site, employment assistance and skills training, outsourced child care, therapy, computer learning tools, teachers and tutors, private bathrooms, laundry facilities, a full-service kitchen and dining room, and a children’s playground.

A common area at Salvation Army’s Rathgeber Center for families. (KXAN Photo/ Candy Rodriguez).

It is located at 4613 Tannehill Lane in east Austin near E. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and U.S. Highway 183.

Salvation Army said this new center was built, “in response to the growing population of family homelessness in Austin.”

The opening of this center comes after Austin has experienced more than a year of heated community debate about how best to address homelessness, a debate which was galvanized with the Austin City Councils’ decision in June to repeal a ban on camping, sitting, and lying down in public. City leaders have acknowledged that this change made homelessness in the city more visible with more people sleeping in tents in public.

Addressing needs in the community

There is a lot of demand for shelter beds and homeless services in Austin. Salvation Army’s shelters all have waitlists to get in, as of January 2020 they say they had 81 single adults on their waitlist as well as 51 mothers with 102 children.

21-year-old Lyric Wardlow used to be homeless in Austin, she and her mother stayed at the Salvation Army’s downtown shelter when she was a teen. Now, Wardlow has stable housing and is living in Pflugerville.

She agrees that downtown Austin was a challenging place to have a homeless shelter for families, noting that festival crowds and other activities downtown were tough to live around as a teen.

“Moving the shelter from downtown is really a good idea,” she said.

But she acknowledged that it will be more than just the location which will determine whether the Rathgeber Center will be a success. Wardlow said that during her time staying in the Salvation Army downtown center, she could have used more support in finding counseling and a new living arrangement that supported her mom’s disability.

“I mean I’m optimistic, I hope that [Salvation Army] doing this new shelter is going to help them really be able to help the clients in the shelter, I hope that the families really get the best attention possible,” Wardlow said. “I never want it to be the same as what I experienced and I always hope that they are looking to better what they are doing.”

“I hope they get the services they need to move on to something better or never have to come back,” she added.

Wardlow said that she hopes the Rathgeber Center takes input from and puts on staff people who have experienced homelessness before.

“I think that the best way to move forward in the way that they need the clients to be able to be helped is by bringing in previous people who know the way of the shelter and know how to work with the clients in the best way, and speak up for them when no one else is speaking up for them,” Wardlow said.

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