The Salvation Army will permanently close its Downtown shelter at 8th and Neches on March 15 – less than a month after the nonprofit informed the public and its partners in homelessness response that it would shutter the 100-bed facility.
Major Lewis Reckline, who with his wife Jacqulyn leads the Salvation Army’s Austin Area Command, announced the closure in a Feb. 16 blog post. Reckline acknowledged the 35-year-old shelter’s legacy and unique role among service providers; for many years, “the Sally” was the largest Austin shelter accepting women and children, and it’s currently the only Downtown shelter offering beds to single women. But, Reckline wrote, the “facility is aging and in disrepair” and “after a long period of consideration and prayer,” the nonprofit decided it was “no longer tenable to continue investing in the necessary infrastructure” needed to maintain the building.
In a Feb. 24 interview, Reckline told the Chronicle that the Salvation Army would “eventually” put the building up for sale and reinvest profits into its other Austin programs. The Salvation Army has not yet entered negotiations with a buyer, Reckline said, but they are focused on selling, so the facility will not be leased to the city or another provider to continue its function, temporarily, as a shelter. The Travis Central Appraisal District values the shelter property at $10.2 million, of which $4.6 million is land value; the Salvation Army owns several adjoining parcels that are worth more than $2 million.
Though the Salvation Army will continue to operate its two East Austin family shelters – the 81-bed Austin Shelter for Women and Children and the 120-bed Rathgeber Center for Families – the loss of the Downtown shelter will be a shock to Austin’s already meager supply of shelter beds. In 2022 the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition identified 926 beds; in December 2022, ECHO reported that 818 beds were occupied.
When the Downtown Salvation Army closes, Austin will lose around 10% of its emergency shelter capacity overnight. “We are living in a time when folks are criminalized for sleeping on our streets and we are now losing one of our largest, low-barrier shelters for single men and women,” ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica told the Chronicle, noting that single adults represent the largest population of unhoused people in Austin. “It will have a huge impact on the people who need our help the most. Quite frankly, it’s somewhat catastrophic.”
The Salvation Army’s decision, announced with little time to formulate transition plans for the people who rely on the shelter, startled providers and street outreach specialists who generally regard the nonprofit as one of Austin’s more valuable service providers. But many – including Mollica, Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey and her team at Austin Public Health, and the shelter’s staff and clients – did not find out about the shelter’s imminent closing until Feb. 17. “While The Salvation Army had previously informed the city of a funding shortage and potential eventual closure … in the coming years,” a city spokesperson told us, “Austin Public Health had not been notified of the immediate plans to close the facility”.
Reckline said in our Feb. 24 interview that since arriving in Austin in August 2020, he’s had multiple conversations with city staff and elected officials “where we felt we were going with [the shelter] financially.” It’s unclear when the closure decision was finally made, but Reckline told us Friday that the decision came down from the Salvation Army’s national office. But in response to follow up questions we emailed Monday, Feb. 27, Reckline said the decision was “a local one in partnership with our local Board of Directors.”
The Salvation Army made one attempt to give the city advance notice; in mid-January, Reckline and members of the board met with Mayor Kirk Watson (on the job for about a week) to discuss their plans to announce on Feb. 1 a closure date of March 1. Watson convinced the nonprofit to delay this timeline by two weeks, hoping the shelter could remain open once the property was on the market. “City Manager Spencer Cronk and I discussed the issue at the time,” Watson told us in a statement, but the Salvation Army did not notify other city staff about their plans.
“I understood the financial burden the property was extracting from the Salvation Army,” Watson said, “but I was very disappointed in the process and timing. Frankly, I think it’s unacceptable.” The non-profit’s “unilateral decision” creates a new gap that needs to be filled, Watson continued, which could be addressed through “emergency rental assistance and other tools.” Longer-term, Watson plans to meet with the building’s buyer – whoever that might be – “to ask if the city could reopen the shelter in some capacity” while the sale closes.
Austin Public Health signed two contracts with the Salvation Army, for a total of $466,228, to fund Downtown shelter operations for fiscal 2023, which ends Sept. 30. City records provided to the Chronicle show that as of Feb. 23, all of the $466,228 had been spent just four months into the fiscal year. In an attempt to narrow the shelter’s funding gap, APH also earmarked another $540,935 in state funds from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
Reckline and Watson agree that transitioning Salvation Army clients into a different shelter or housing program is a top priority, but on-the-ground outreach and provider sources tell us little effort has been made on that front. According to Reckline, 98 people were staying at the shelter Feb. 17. “Some have already transitioned to long-term housing,” Reckline said, though some providers fear that shelter guests may have just left for the street. As of Feb. 27, he reported that the Salvation Army was transitioning 79 people to other options, and that nearly all of the shelter’s 80 staff have been offered other positions within the organization.
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