Austin considers adding overflow homeless shelter in another neighborhood

Crowds outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (KXAN Photo)
Crowds outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A plan to put a homeless shelter in another Austin neighborhood is in the works.

On Thursday, City Council members ordered city staff to find a city-owned building to turn into a temporary emergency shelter as soon as possible. It’s part of a bigger effort to reduce the size of the homeless population in downtown Austin.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, also known as the ARCH, is overflowing. The sidewalks along the building look about as busy as you’d imagine it is inside.

It’s a problem on many levels in the eyes of Austin Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. “In a city as prosperous as Austin, in a city as innovative as Austin, we need to find a solution,” Tovo told KXAN Friday.

She says downtown’s homeless deserve shelter and need to be removed from an environment conducive to crime. She fears drug dealers keep making their way downtown to prey on the homeless. Tovo wants those drug peddlers out, and thinks re-purposing a city-owned building into an overflow emergency shelter away from downtown for about six months can be a good fix.

“[It] will likely be existing recreation centers, and then we’ll have to have a conversation about, you know, how to keep those programs that are currently going on in those recreation centers going,” Tovo said.

The City Council has given staff two weeks to come up with a list of buildings that fit the criteria — something safe near transit and social services.

“I think everybody would agree that one space in Austin that could be re-purposed to higher and better use would be council chambers,” said Mike Levy, recently a member of the City of Austin Public Safety Commission.

Levy’s suggestion is tongue-in-cheek. He’s lived in Austin since the late 60s and feels this search is a waste of time and fixes nothing. “Anything that is like that has either been torn down or is already being used for something else,” Levy said.

Tovo knows it will be tough finding a building that fits the city’s needs. She feels it’s important enough to put in the effort. “In the same way that we would do were there to be a natural disaster or some other kind of crisis,” said Tovo.

This search for an emergency shelter is separate from another city resolution passed last October.

That one tasked city staff to search for properties that can serve as a permanent shelter and housing for Austin’s homeless. That search continues.

Seeing so many people living on the streets it’s easy to create a narrative in your head about who they are and how they got there. But Frontsteps, the organization that runs The ARCH, says many of the most common ideas about the homeless are myths and it’s working to correct the record.

Frontsteps says most people who enter a homeless shelter will leave within 30 days, never to return. About 45 percent of homeless people have had a job within the past 30 days and most are not mentally ill.

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