The Austin City Council approved two measures aimed at increasing shelter space for Austin's homeless population Thursday but drew criticism from residents over the adequacy and cost of its efforts.
The council first approved a lease agreement with the Salvation Army allowing the city to reopen a homeless shelter downtown for one year starting July 1. The agreement, which must be approved by the National Salvation Army's Board of Trustees, is expected to cost the city more than $1.2 million and will be funded through the Austin Public Health Department.
A second agreement approved by the council expands an existing contract with California-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy to coordinate staffing and operations at the shelter. The nonprofit already runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or ARCH, and the city budgeted more than $4.5 million for Urban Alchemy's additional services. Part of that money is coming from the American Rescue Plan Act, according to city documents.
The shelter sits in the district of Council Member Zohaib "Zo" Qadri, who said the city is experiencing a homelessness crisis that will be mitigated by the reopening of the shelter. The Austin Ending Community Homelessness Coalition estimated in May that more than 5,400 Austin residents are experiencing homelessness, both sheltered and unsheltered.
"We need to make sure we have as much shelter capacity as we can have," Qadri recently told the Statesman. "I'm glad that right now, as a city, we have been able to step in and we've been able to relocate folks, and I'm glad that we have the opportunity to lease the building for ... a year to continue to do the work that's necessary to help our unhoused neighbors."
The downtown shelter will contain 150 beds and be designated for homeless individuals, not families, said Kirkpatrick Tyler, chief of government and community affairs at Urban Alchemy. The ARCH provides 130 beds for men only.
Though it closed its downtown shelter, the Salvation Army continues to operate the Austin Shelter for Women and Children and the Rathgeber Center for Families, which provide 300 beds combined, according to its website.
A 'ticking time bomb' for homelessness system
Some people wonder if the city's plans are enough. João Paulo Connolly, organizing director for the Austin Justice Coalition, said congregate shelter, a system in which people are housed collectively in one space, is the least effective model because it eliminates privacy and doesn't incentivize people to stay. He argued a one-year agreement does little to address the systemic issue of homelessness.
"We are spending a lot of money on very short-term solutions," Connolly said. "That's a major problem, because if you sign a one-year contract for shelter operations and we're using one-time federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund that, those dollars don't come back ... it's a ticking time bomb for our system."
The shelter plans to offer resources like case management, addiction support and employment assistance that help people find and sustain permanent housing, Tyler said. Urban Alchemy intends to repurpose some of the congregate space to provide privacy to some residents.
There are currently no plans with the city or the Salvation Army to continue the agreement past a year, Tyler said, though it could become a possibility.
"Right now we just want to make sure folks have a safe place to go," Tyler said. "We hope we make an impact in that area and with the resources of the Salvation Army that motivates the city, the council people and even the Salvation Army to say 'How do we continue this work in service to our most vulnerable neighbors?'"
Residents upset with shelter's closure, council response
JJ Ramirez, an organizer for the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, spoke before the council Thursday to express appreciation for the shelter's reopening, though he said he was frustrated by the council's short-term solution to the closure of the shelter.
"It very much seems like a temporary Band-Aid to look good, like we're just going to open up this shelter system for one year," Ramirez said. "No, we need comprehensive plans that extend longer than the one year, not just a place where people can go temporarily, with nothing, so they can just go back out to the streets."
While Ramirez talked, several people held up signs that read "No shelter beds without a housing plan."
In March, Salvation Army Maj. Lewis Reckline, who runs the shelter with his wife, Jacqulyn, announced plans to close the shelter on the organization's website. He wrote the building's deterioration and other pandemic-related challenges inhibited staff's ability to properly care for the shelter's residents.
Connolly said the announcement presented a significant challenge due to its timeline.
"One of the problems was not the fact that it closed but the way that the closure was announced. We were told basically in a month ... 'We're going to close the shelter,'" Connolly said. "Everybody in our system started to scramble to figure out how to help those folks. They had to create beds and other facilities to relocate them. When you close a shelter and there's a bunch of people in it, that's a traumatic event."
The shelter officially closed in April, and the Salvation Army worked with the city and other partners to relocate the shelter's residents, 42% of whom were moved to emergency shelters in Austin and 15% of whom were placed in permanent housing, according to a previous Statesman report.
The Salvation Army hired commercial real estate services firm CBRE to put the property up for sale in May.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin leases downtown Salvation Army homeless shelter for one year