Monday, July 29, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki
City leaders and residents are planning a series of meetings in the coming weeks to help them move forward and provide some clarity on efforts to manage the city’s growing homeless population.
The Aug. 8 City Council meeting – the first since the July recess – is expected to include discussion about creating a local government corporation in order to fund housing options for those experiencing homelessness. On Aug. 6, the community group SAFE (Safe Austin For Everyone) Project will hold a forum at Woodlawn Baptist Church to primarily focus on plans to open a housing center for the homeless in South Austin.
City Council approved a maximum budget of just over $8 million for that purchase and renovation in June, along with guidelines to staff to create a plan for managing the property to increase safety for the surrounding neighborhood.
Council expects to receive an update on those plans and the purchase this month, with the city working to hold a community forum about that issue at a date to be determined.
Other criticism has come from the decision to locate the housing center – which won’t be a drop-in site but will work with referred clients moving toward permanent housing – near homeless encampments beneath nearby expressways.
Cleo Petricek, an organizer of SAFE Project, said South Austin residents remain concerned that the property purchase was agreed to without a separate community meeting beforehand.
“If they’re handling this without community engagement … we’re the experts at what we need in our community and if you’re not having open dialogue at the beginning it blunts the opportunity to receive whatever their actions are,” she said. “Right now we feel that things are being rammed down our throats. Everyone already feels less safe.”
Among those who may be feeling less safe in Austin’s current climate are people experiencing homelessness. Earlier this month, a couple was targeted when a lit firework was thrown from a moving vehicle into their tent. The advocacy group Grassroots Leadership posited the violence was a direct result of the heated rhetoric that has surrounded the issue of homelessness since City Council’s June actions. Violence within the homeless community has also been in the local media spotlight in recent weeks.
Petricek said her group still hopes to challenge the city’s decision to purchase the office building, or put enough restrictions on its operations to keep it from creating a setting similar to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which is located downtown and attracts hundreds of people gathering outside on a daily basis hoping for assistance and shelter.
“Putting a shelter of homeless individuals that are trying to recover and get on a path to success, it is counterproductive to put them around encampments with people who do not want to be in shelters and participating in criminal activity,” she said. “We don’t need an increase of that population into that area, to exacerbate the problems.”
District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen said she has had ongoing meetings with neighborhood groups in South Austin about homelessness over the past two years. She said the August meeting that will take place after city staff gives an update on its planning for the site should help to calm speculation and other concerns about the housing center.
“We’ve suggested we meet after staff brings that information back to us since that will allow us to have specific conversations before the Council votes on what’s next,” she said. “We need to have some real specific conversations about that, and need to hear from people what they think about specific proposals.”
Kitchen said she sees the move to prevent drop-in clients along with preventing camping or congregating outside the building as the most important requirement to make it acceptable for neighbors. There is still no set timeline for when the center will open, but in June it was expected that it could start providing services by the end of the year or in early 2020.
“What’s critical to the property and its operations is that it’s not a drop-in location and a place that people can come and get services if they are not living there, and that there’s no camping outside and there are other measures to secure the property,” she said. “The bottom line is that this is a place for people to go through and not to, so they can be connected to services. It’s a place to live and there won’t be camping or drop-ins. We know we need more than one place like this. We know we have to deliver high-quality services in a secure setting, and show that it works and do it right in order to be successful.”