Unhoused Moved to “Bridge Shelter” As City HEALs Its First Encampment

The scene near Terrazas on Wednesday evening, June 16; posted notices of the HEAL cleanup (one is taped to the tent at left) state “NO PUBLIC CAMPING will be allowed at this location effective Friday, June 18, 2021” and that “Any items left behind will be considered abandoned.” (Photo by Mike Clark-Madison)

Nearly all of those who have been living outside of the Terrazas Branch Library in East Austin have been moved into “bridge shelter,” in the first effort to relocate people and clear campsites as part of the Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative approved by City Council in February.

City officials confirmed for the Chronicle that 20 people were placed into rooms at the SouthBridge shelter, a former Rodeway Inn which had become a Protective Lodge for those experiencing homelessness and facing high health risks from COVID-19; it began operating as transitional housing this week. As a condition for staying in the shelter, residents must engage with case managers to try to secure longer-term housing, but the hope is that people will be allowed to move on at their own pace and increase their stability before entering a housing program.

In May, Council approved a $1.4 million contract with Family Eldercare and a $500,000 addendum to a $2 million contract with Integral Care to provide rapid rehousing (RRH) as a next stop for people who accept temporary shelter as part of HEAL. Both contracts would cover about 16 months of housing, which is typical; RRH programs are primarily for people who suddenly lose housing rather than those with long-term experience of homelessness. But this would still allow time for those sheltered under HEAL to access stabilizing services (such as health care) and potentially move into future permanent supportive housing (PSH) or other affordable housing options.

The HEAL resolution Council adopted in February did not specify Terrazas as the first site, and indeed didn’t name any locations outright; it instead offered direction to staff filled with hints about encampments that have frustrated neighborhoods and their Council members. It referred to an East Austin location “on a sidewalk or public easement adjacent to or leading to a public library”; the area is represented by CM Pio Renteria, who lives a few blocks away. While Terrazas, along with other Austin Public Library branches, has been closed during the pandemic, the Downtown Austin Community Court has operated there since August 2020, having outgrown its original home on East Sixth Street.

A city spokesperson told us in a statement: “All four HEAL sites are considered to be of equal priority, which is why they were selected to be addressed during Phase I of the HEAL Initiative. The HOST team and DACC already had substantial relationships with people in the encampment at Terrazas, which facilitated a shorter timeline for engagement at the site. Other sites will be addressed soon.”

City staff is seeking a new home for the DACC, which offers jail diversion and case management services; the library is set to reopen June 25, and DACC will once again move to its own temporary shelter. Though some have assumed DACC has attracted unhoused Austinites to camp near Terrazas, it doesn’t offer day services such as showers, meals, and laundry that would make it a better place to stay than elsewhere. (Those experiencing homelessness have congregated at this location since before Terrazas was built; the Austin Baptist Chapel’s Angel House soup kitchen is across East Cesar Chavez.)

City staff had intended to sign a 10-year lease at 1719 East 2nd Street to be DACC’s new home, but Renteria and neighbors of that site (about eight blocks east of Terrazas) objected when it reached the Dec. 3 Council agenda. Staff now proposes DACC could move to city-owned One Texas Center at 505 Barton Springs, now that the Development Services Department has relocated to its new digs at Highland, but expects DACC would have to move again in 18-24 months.

The former Rodeway Inn that is now the SouthBridge shelter was the first property identified, in 2019, as part of the city’s motel acquisition strategy to purchase sites that could become supportive housing, as Austin tries to close a gap of several thousand units needed for people to exit homelessness. The city finally closed on the property months later, in April 2020, and then in August instead opened it as a ProLodge, which has now been decommissioned as the pandemic abates. It has 87 rooms total, but COVID-19 precautions will initially limit occupancy to 75 people in total. Other rooms will also be used for offices and storage. It operates by invitation only, not serving walk-in clients; residents will be allowed to bring their pets, partners, and possessions. The city says SouthBridge will have 24/7 on-site security and new fencing, to assuage concerns from its neighbors.

In February, after the passage of the HEAL resolution, staff decided to use the Rodeway as a bridge shelter where people moving directly from the street could have their own room and bathroom, and could take a breath and focus on their housing goals. Preliminary research at hotel shelters in and around Seattle, where unhoused residents were moved quickly after the region saw the nation’s first severe COVID-19 outbreak, showed those people were substantially more likely to exit into permanent housing than were those living in congregate shelters, either during the same time frame or before the pandemic.

Council in May authorized a contract with Front Steps to operate SouthBridge for $2.6 million, with three potential 12-month extensions. As of June 16, the contract had yet to be signed, as Front Steps has not agreed to terms, according to sources familiar with the matter; a city spokesperson said it will be executed soon. It’s believed that Front Steps, which operates Downtown’s Austin Resource Center for Homelessness and is currently undergoing a leadership; shakeup, has been unable to hire staff for SouthBridge. The nonprofit’s website currently has multiple job listings, including one for a Client Navigation Specialist to work at the shelter, starting at $15/hour for 40 hours/week. Rather than wait, city leaders decided to pull staffers from other city departments to operate SouthBridge until Front Steps gets its staffing in place. The city did the same when it first launched the ProLodges in 2020; Front Steps has not returned a request for comment.

Following voter approval on May 1 of Proposition B, which restored criminal penalties for public camping, City Hall has felt growing pressure to find alternatives for Austin’s roughly 2,200 people living without shelter to go once the ban is fully enforced beginning Aug. 8. (A state law banning unauthorized camping on public property, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this week, takes effect Sept. 1.) Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey has said staff is pursuing a range of options where people can go once they must move from an encampment, including bridge shelter; she told Council last week “My primary value in thinking about this process is timeliness.” Staff was “actively pursuing” extending the city’s current leases with motels and hopes to bring such agreements to Council when it reconvenes July 29 after its summer break.