City Plans New Emergency Homeless Shelter, But Without Much Community Input

The marshaling yard and warehouse in 2021 (Photo by Courtesy of Austin Convention Center Department)

A Friday announcement that the city of Austin plans to convert a city-owned warehouse in Southeast Austin into a temporary shelter for 300 people experiencing homelessness was met with mixed reaction from people involved in the city’s Homeless Response System.

In a city with only 900 emergency shelter beds where 5,000 people sleep without shelter on any given night, emergency shelter needs are certainly urgent. But the shelter plan, which appears to have been made with little input from stakeholders in the homeless response community, raised concerns among some advocates and officials, who worry that the plan may be shortsighted.

A Friday memo from Interim City Manager Jesús Garza announcing the plan indicates that the shelter would operate for approximately one year and could be just one among other temporary shelters the city attempts to stand up in the immediate future. The new temporary shelter would be located at the Marshalling Yard, which the Austin Convention Center Department currently uses as a staging area during large events. The yard is used to reduce vehicle congestion Downtown, especially from large trucks, when planners are preparing for large events. It is located on Airport Commerce Drive near the intersection of U.S. 183 and TX 71, about one mile from the Esperanza Community, a successful transitional shelter compound operated by the Other Ones Foundation. Both shelter facilities would be located in D3; Council Member José Velásquez, who represents the majority-Latino southeast district, said his district welcomes the opportunity to help unhoused neighbors.”We need to get people off the streets and into permanent supportive housing,” Velásquez told us.

The memo also indicates that the city intends to create additional shelter space by converting the single-room “bridge shelter” locations located in North and South Austin into double-occupancy rooms. This could add space for another 130 people across both bridge shelter locations. The bridge shelters came online in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way of providing safe shelter to medically vulnerable people living on the streets. They remained in operation, at a smaller scale, as pandemic conditions improved; “congregate shelter” like that offered at the Salvation Army or the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) have begun to fall out of favor with homeless response leaders throughout the nation, with non-congregate type shelters that offer people the comfort and security of an individual room becoming more popular.

Austin has a dearth of emergency beds available to people living without shelter. The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, the lead agency that coordinates efforts aimed at reducing homelessness in the Austin-Travis County Continuum of Care (CoC), estimates that the approximately 5,000 people living without shelter in Austin on any given night have access to just 900 emergency shelter beds. “Clearly, there is a critical need to increase shelter space,” the memo reads. “Austinites seeking to comply with reinstated local and state prohibitions on camping on public property urgently need a safe place to sleep.”

City officials are expected to release a Request for Proposal soon seeking a nonprofit partner to operate the Marshalling Yard shelter. The contract would need to be approved by City Council, and it would be funded through $9.142 million of “unencumbered homelessness funds” from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) investment plan, the roughly $188 million in relief funds the city received from the federal government during 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But unencumbered doesn’t mean that the funds were not already allocated for another purpose, it just means the city has not yet committed them to a contract. It is unclear how much, if any, of the $9 million that will be used to operate the shelter was intended for another use. It is also unclear how much, if any, of the $9 million will go toward improving living conditions at the facility, or if it will all be put toward its operation. The city has not yet responded to follow-up questions submitted by the Chronicle.

Sources familiar with the plan indicated it was “very top-down,” with the City Manager’s Office seeking little input from Council offices or other stakeholders. “We were informed, not consulted,” said one source. It appears only two council members were notified of the plan, and when that happened, the conversation was more a head’s-up than a request for feedback. One concern is the cost of the shelter operation, which could amount to about $30,000 per person if it is fully utilized. Another concern is city leaders may not have sufficiently considered how unhoused people placed at the shelter will be moved out into longer-term housing (Garza’s memo does not mention a program aimed at moving people” from the shelter into permanent housing). Segregating clients into one remote region of the city without easy access to city services could actually make it harder for people experiencing homelessness to find a way out, said João Paulo Connolly, organizing director with the Austin Justice Coalition.

“Austin has a need for emergency shelter, but even our emergency plans should be designed with proper planning and input from stakeholders,” Connolly said of the plan. “This part of the plan did not involve consultation with any of the stakeholders in Austin’s Homeless Response System. … Short term strategies of this sort, resorted to in short-sightedness and desperation, often for political expediency, lead to long term problems further down. These sort of spaces quickly suck up city resources but do not address the long term needs.”

Connolly also said it was “crucial to get the perspectives of clients and people with lived experience around these kinds of initiatives, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” He referenced recent, abrupt announcements about operations at the ARCH and the Salvation Army of Austin’s Downtown shelter – two of the largest emergency shelters in the city – that adversely impacted guests and staff at each location. With the ARCH, the city decided to cancel the contract with the shelter’s longtime operator, Front Steps, after the nonprofit struggled to manage the facility. Closure of the Downtown Salvation Army was announced abruptly, forcing the city and its partners to scramble to find shelter or housing solutions for the guests staying there. “If we don’t seriously address the quality standards and support for our shelter providers, we are simply setting the stage for future crises.”

Garza’s memo acknowledges that the initiative is just one step in a broader reassessment of the city’s shelter system currently underway by staff. The city’s Homeless Strategy Division will offer a range of recommendations meant to improve the shelter system in June and before then, they will hold community engagement sessions to gather feedback on the Marshalling Yard shelter as well as other improvements to the community’s shelter system.

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