The Women Left Behind When Salvation Army’s Downtown Shelter Shutters

Women without permanent homes who will be evicted when the downtown Salvation Army shelter closed joined with service agencies and other folks living without housing March 2 to express their opposition to the sudden closure. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The past year has been particularly trying for Carolyn Williams. Her husband died and, in October, Austin Police officers killed one of her sons (he was threatening people with a gun and appeared to fire at the officers before they fired back).

But she had a roof over her head; an apartment in East Austin that she shared with another son who suffers from severe mental illness. In February, while Williams was still mourning the loss of her husband and son, she became homeless. Unable to deal with Williams’ son, the building’s landlord evicted the family. Williams was at a loss, but she knew there was one place she could go to find safe shelter.

“The Salvation Army was my saving grace,” Williams told us on a humid morning, March 2, outside of the Central Presbyterian Church downtown. “They took me off the streets. I had a bed and I felt safe.”

She arrived at the shelter on Feb. 7; two weeks later, she learned that the Salvation Army of Austin intended to close their downtown shelter, known as the “Sally,” permanently on March 15. Once again, she’ll face displacement, and this time, she doesn’t know where she’ll go. “I’ve never lived on the street,” Williams told us. “I don’t know what that feels like. But I am learning what it feels like to have my integrity taken away. To be treated like I’m nobody. That’s what it’s felt like over the past week at the Sally.”

Williams is one of perhaps a several dozen women who will face a similar choice when the downtown shelter closes. The Salvation Army reserves 50 of the shelter’s 100 beds for single, adult women, but it is unclear how many remain there at this point. The Salvation Army operates two additional shelters in Austin, but those are reserved for people with children and the nonprofit has not announced whether they’ll open space for people displaced from their downtown shelter. So when the Sally closes, there will be no downtown shelter offering beds to single women.

Kellie Alexander, left, comforts Carolyn Williams (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Williams was joined by her friends and sheltermates, Kellie Alexander and Nancy Koholberg, at a rally organized by groups supporting Austin’s unhoused population in an attempt to draw attention to the lack of emergency shelter beds in the community. The latest figures from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition estimate that nearly 4,000 people live without shelter in Austin, while the community has less than 1,000 overnight shelter beds available – many of which are occupied on any given night. When the Salvation Army’s downtown shelter closes, Austin will lose about 10% of its emergency shelter capacity.

Alexander and Koholberg sat with Williams on a bench in front of Central Presbyterian, talking with media and supporters, often holding each other’s hands and hugging one another as they talked openly about their painful experiences. Alexander returned to Austin from the pacific coast two years ago (before that, she lived here for 35 years). She shared a sentiment common among the three women – “I have been victimized, but I am not a victim,” she told us. “I am a champion and I am going to pick myself back up.”

Like Williams and Koholberg, Alexander has been working with a Salvation Army case manager to find stable housing. But that’s a long, hard road, and while she walks it, she has been grateful for the Sally. “The Salvation Army has been a blessing for me,” she said of the two months she has stayed there. “I’m going to walk in there and sleep in a bed tonight,” she continued, but in two weeks, that bed will be gone and she doesn’t know where she’ll go. “I don’t know if I’m gonna have to get my cardboard and sleep on the street again.”

The event also provided an opportunity for community leaders to demand more from the Salvation Army, a faith-based nonprofit that has enjoyed a solid reputation in Austin’s homeless response system (at least compared to some of the other providers in town). Council Member Zo Qadri, whose downtown District 9 encompasses the Sally, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the Salvation Army for providing such short notice regarding their closure plans. He joined Mayor Kirk Watson, who told us earlier this week that the city would work with a future owner of the property to temporarily utilize it as an emergency shelter.

But the Salvation Army still has not answered pressing questions about the shelter closure and their future plans for the property, which is likely worth tens of millions of dollars. Austin Public Health signed two contracts with the nonprofit in October, totalling $466,228 – roughly equivalent to the funding the Salvation Army received from the city in all of Fiscal Year 2022 – but by February, all of those funds had been spent. Major Lewis Reckline, who is one of the leaders of the organization’s Austin Area Command, did not respond to questions from the Chronicle about how the funds were spent.

The Homelessness Response System Leadership Council – the governing board that manages programs funded through the Austin-Travis County Continuum of Care – issued a letter demanding answers to these and other questions. How will the shelter’s remaining clients be relocated and to where? If the property is sold, what will the organization do with future revenue? (Reckline told us that revenue would be reinvested into the nonprofit’s other Austin-area programs.) When the property is put on the market, will the city be granted an opportunity to purchase the building, which is in need of renovation, so it could continue to serve as emergency shelter?

We have heard conflicting reports about the city’s interest in the property. In a Feb. 23 statement, a city spokesperson said that the Salvation Army “has indicated that it is not open to leasing the facility back” to the city, and other sources have told us that the city is indeed interested in leasing the property for use as a shelter, even if just on a short-term basis. But in a Feb. 27 email, Reckline wrote to us that “the city has not approached [us] about leasing the building.” Huh? Reckline added that the organization felt it was in their clients best interest to sell the property and reinvest proceeds from the sale into other programs.

Despite the fear and uncertainty people staying at the downtown shelter are facing, Williams, Kohlberg, and Alexander have found strength in one another – and the broader community of unhoused people they belong to. Kohlberg articulated what was apparent looking at the three of them sitting together. “I’ve been up and down in my life,” Kolhberg said. “I’m rendered into this community once again, but god bless homelessness and the people I’ve found in it.”

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