A resident at the downtown Salvation Army shelter on March 2, after learning of the closure (Photo by Jana Birchum)
The Salvation Army of Austin’s downtown shelter will remain open an additional thirty days at a cost of $100,000, following a deal brokered between the nonprofit and the city that will allow the shelter’s remaining 48 guests time to find lodging elsewhere before the downtown shelter shutters permanently.
The announcement comes as a major aboutface for the nonprofit, which has repeatedly declined to delay closure of the shelter, or temporarily lease it back to the city so it could continue to operate as a shelter. The organization maintained that selling the property, worth at least $10.6 million but likely more than that, and reinvesting it into other Austin-area programs was the best way to help guests currently staying at the shelter.
One shelter guest, Tuyet Vo Sang, told City Council’s Public Health Committee, March 8, “I’m hoping that I will get some help from the city [so I can] stay here and continue with my medical care. … I know that the [homelessness] crisis is scary, but the lack of humanity is scarier.”
Public pressure in support of people like Vo Sang and other shelter guests has apparently motivated the Salvation Army to relent. Organizations like the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, the Austin Justice Coalition, and the Central Presbyterian Church (a neighbor of the Sally, as the shelter’s often called) have rallied around the cause, drawing attention to the plight of the roughly 100 people who were staying at the shelter when closure was announced. Mayor Kirk Watson, who learned about the Salvation Army’s plans to close the shelter a few weeks before the announcement was made public, has also been a driving force in pressuring the organization, both publicly and behind the scenes, to delay closure.
People staying at the shelter and those supporting them within Austin’s homeless response system were shocked to learn that the Salvation Army planned to close the sally on March 15, with less than 30 days notice. The shelter has been a vital part of Austin’s fragile emergency shelter system for more than three decades; the 100-beds it offers account for about 10% of Austin’s entire shelter capacity. It is also currently the only downtown shelter offering beds to single women – a population particularly vulnerable in a community that criminalizes unsheltered homelessness by prohibiting public camping in safer, more visible parts of the city.
Major Lewis Reckline, who leads the Salvation Army’s Austin Area command announced the shelter’s closure in a Feb. 16 blog post. Eight days later, in an interview with the Chronicle – seemingly the only one SA leadership locally or nationally has done with Austin media – Reckline said the organization could no longer justify spending the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” it took to maintain the aging building. At City Council’s Public Health Committee meeting, March 8, Reckline said that for at least the past three years, the Salvation Army has spent $3 million per year to keep the downtown shelter operational.
It is unclear how that money has been spent – on building repairs, direct client assistance, or other costs – because Reckline did not provide that information at the committee meeting and did not respond to an email we sent asking for more information. But we know that Austin Public Health awarded the organization about $1 million in funding in October and by mid-February, the nonprofit had already spent $466,228 – a rate of spend-down that has raised questions among others working in Austin’s homeless services community. Reckline said that it costs about $100,000 per month to operate the shelter.
In the three weeks since the shelter’s closure was announced, Austin’s homeless response system has mobilized to ensure as many of the facility’s guests have a place to go other than the streets or the woods when it closes. Numbers shared with the Chronicle by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) show that since Feb. 17, 10 of the 98 guests utilizing the shelter at the time moved on to a “permanent destination” – which could be an apartment or a family member who extended an open-ended invitation. Another 12 guests moved to a “temporary destination,” like another shelter; and two women were identified in an “institutional setting,” like a jail or hospital.
Most troubling, though, are the 35 people who exited to an “other destination” which can mean the guest either died or they departed for an unknown destination – what service providers sometimes call “exiting to the street.” In other words, 35 people departed the shelter in a way that likely did not result in stable housing.
“It’s typical of emergency shelters, across the nation, to exit people to an unknown destination,” ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica told us. But the rate at which guests at the Salvation Army’s downtown shelter left to an unknown destination – about ⅓ of all clients in 20 days – is alarming. “We need to be assertive in our outreach now that closure has been delayed,” Mollica said of how providers and outreach workers can help the people who left the Sally to an unknown location. “We need to make sure those folks know they have a bed available and that they don’t fall out of the system and lose the support they were receiving. That is a top responsibility for the entire response system during the closure extension period.”
The city is working on that outreach. Per a Friday memo, staff from the Homeless Strategy Division and other service provider partners visited clients and case managers at the downtown shelter to assure the women that they will be offered somewhere local to stay before the shelter closes. The Homeless Strategy Division will give a weekly progress report on relocating the sally’s residents.
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