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Travis County Earmarks $110 Million In Federal Funds To Combat Homelessness

Esperanza Better Shelter 04 16 21.jpg
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Travis County voted Tuesday to use federal money to help The Other Ones Foundation build more shelters at Esperanza Community, a state-sanctioned camp it operates for people experiencing homelessness.

Travis County commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to set aside $110 million from the Biden administration's American Recovery Plan to combat homelessness and bring more affordable housing to the Austin area.

The one-off investment comes months after an Austin City Council vote to set aside $100 million to fight poverty and get Austinites living on the street into homes.

The resolution explicitly singles out four projects aimed at providing supportive housing for people transitioning out of homelessness.

  • $50 million would be set aside for the Community First Village in eastern Travis County. In April, Mobile Loaves and Fishes unveiled its plan to triple the size of its housing complex off Hog Eye Road and develop a 76-acre tract of donated land in Southeast Austin off Burleson Road. Together with Foundation Communities, Mobile Loaves and Fishes plans to build 100 supportive housing units and 600 tiny homes, then donate the land to the county.
  • Another $50 million would go toward developing six affordable housing communities across the county, with a goal of at least 1,000 units. The project is a collaboration between the Austin Area Urban League, Caritas, Family Eldercare, Integral Care, LifeWorks and the SAFE Alliance. That collective, known as the Travis County Supportive Housing Collaborative, aims to come back to the county in January with prospective sites. If those sites are approved, the collaborative would partner with private developers to build out the complexes, with construction slated to wrap up by December 2024.
  • Foundation Communities would also get relief money to complete work on its Juniper Creek Apartment Complex, which hopes to house at least 100 formerly homeless families in North Austin.
  • The Other Ones Foundation would also receive money to revamp the Esperanza Community, the state-owned camp it manages in Southeast Austin. The nonprofit added some tiny homes to the site in April, and earlier this summer it started a capital campaign to raise more than $5 million to build out community centers and other amenities for residents.

The sweeping pledge of federal money comes with caveats. Precinct 3 Commissioner Ann Howard offered several amendments, one of which would require any grant to go through a community engagement process. Another would ensure the process include input from people who have experienced homelessness and prioritize input from members of marginalized communities before final approval. The amendments were adopted ahead of the vote.

The additions sparked a larger discussion about equity, with the lion's share of callers during public input urging the commissioners to ensure fairness.

The amendments were also well-received by service providers and nonprofits who've been historically left out of large-scale grants on the county and city level to reduce poverty and combat homelessness.

Advocate Chivas Watson of Working Group 512 told commissioners he supported the resolution, but said larger nonprofits that typically receive local, state and federal money for homeless services have "truly not been effective."

As a formerly homeless and previously incarcerated person, Watson said his group's own efforts to help homeless people have been largely self-funded, including the group's food access program, which raised $400,000 over the last year. He said he hoped the process would be different and that the county would reach out to groups led by people of color.

"Many who [will] get this money ... know nothing about the pipeline of re-entry and the restoration that it takes for someone unhoused to emerge and develop," he said.

Conor Kenny, who helped organize the Travis County Supportive Housing Collaborative, recognizes the funding gap.

He said the group of larger, well-funded nonprofits wants to use the capital from the one-off federal relief to develop those 1,000 units. From there, the plan is to get smaller nonprofits to provide the on-site care and services that will be needed long after the construction wraps up.

"This conversation is just getting started," Kenny said. "The big organizations that received funding here are the ones that are to get these buildings built, but they're not the only organizations that are going to serve the people who are going to live in them."

"There are a lot of unknowns," Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion said ahead of the vote. He expressed skepticism about the earmark process, noting that the county would essentially be committing $50 million to a collective of nonprofits that had never worked together.

Still, he said he'd support the plan — if the county stuck to it.

"This is the easy part, this is the fun part. This is cutting the ribbon," Travillion said. "The work is what's going to be really critical and what's going to be really important. I'm going to support the action, but I'm going to say, I've got to see that community organizations are included."

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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