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  • Writer's pictureMolly Becker

City to pay up to $8.6M for South Austin parcel for new homeless shelter

Monday, June 17,2019 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council is expected to vote this week on approving the purchase of a commercial building in South Austin that will serve as the city’s second homeless shelter.

A pair of resolutions slated for Thursday’s Council meeting spells out the details of the move to purchase 1.6 acres of property at 1112 W. Ben White Blvd. from Alma Tierra Ventures LLC for a maximum of $8.6 million. The building on that property will be renovated to provide up to 100 beds for the homeless, with an operational structure geared toward helping residents move into permanent housing of their own.

The opening of a South Austin shelter was made a priority in recent months because of the growing homeless camps located under expressways in the area. It is expected to cost $2.3 million annually to maintain, with Council’s coming budget talks this summer expected to include discussion about how to fund ongoing support for services for the homeless.

A staff memo explains that the housing center will not operate as a drop-in location the way the downtown Austin Resource Center for the Homeless has been structured for years. There will be no camping or areas to congregate for those who aren’t residents of the facility but are looking for assistance.

City staff is still working on the procurement process to find a vendor who will operate the center, in much the same way as the city contracts with the nonprofit Front Steps to manage ARCH.

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, whose district includes the property, said the client management model that will be in place at the new facility is intended to gradually move people out of homelessness. Recent counts and other data have found more than 1,000 people on any given day in Austin are dealing with homelessness, with 2017 data showing a total of nearly 7,500 individuals being at least temporarily homeless at some point that year.

“The goal for the city is to get places like this going so you’ve got a path to get out of homelessness,” she said. “This is a piece along that path and is going to operate as a smaller place to follow.”

Kitchen and other Council members had pushed to have the new homeless shelter in operation by the end of September, but the purchase of an existing building with renovation needs makes the end of the year the new goal for opening.

Kitchen said the September timeline was based on an expectation of buying a vacant piece of property and erecting a temporary structure quickly. That plan was changed by an inability to find appropriate vacant land and city staff recommending that a permanent structure would be a better long-term investment of city money.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said the ongoing cost of the new shelter plus the recent commitment to support operations of the Salvation Army’s new shelter for families will be a prominent issue during the budget process.

“We really need an emergency shelter and so I think moving forward in that direction makes sense,” she said. “One of the hard conversations we’ll have to have during budget is how to fund the maintenance and operations at that location as well as investing in the Salvation Army’s.”

Kitchen said the process of opening the new shelter will to some degree dovetail with the hiring of a new manager of homeless services for the city. The national search for a permanent hire to fill that position is expected to conclude in the coming weeks, with the intention of naming the new hire before interim manager Veronica Briseño takes her new position as director of the Economic Development Department.

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