Service providers raise concerns about the new manager of Austin’s homeless shelter
It's the end of an era for Austin’s homeless shelter.
The Austin City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a contract with a California-based nonprofit to manage the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.
The city decided earlier this month to end its partnership with Front Steps, the nonprofit that's managed the shelter since it opened in the mid-2000s. But local service providers have questions about the city's quick decision on the contract and concerns over Urban Alchemy, the nonprofit that will take over the ARCH.
The Austin Chronicle first reported that the city was ending its decades-long partnership with Front Steps. The nonprofit receives more than $6 million annually in taxpayer dollars to run the shelter, as well as programs helping veterans and others get into housing.
The news shocked many working in homeless services, but not Andrea Brauer, who worked for Front Steps as a special projects manager for just over a year before she left in 2020.
"I'm not completely surprised given the issues Front Steps has had over the years," Brauer said. "When I started working there in 2019, frankly, I had people tell me it was a 'hot mess' — those are the words they used."
The city said Front Steps wasn't meeting its goals to house people at its Southbridge shelter, a temporary facility to house people being displaced through the city's HEAL initiative. And, in 2018, a city-commissioned study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found Front Steps' overall strategy wasn't working. NAEH suggested retooling the model completely, with a goal of getting clients into long-term housing not simply shelters on a daily basis.
"We had a plan, a timeline and people to carry it out, but it didn't ever happen," she said. "I don't think it was a priority for the organization, and I don't think I had the support of leadership to get it done."
The organization also has had five executive or interim directors in as many years.
In a statement posted online, Front Steps' Board President Haggai Eshed said the organization has "experienced multiple organizational challenges, including major staffing changes and vacancies" amid the pandemic. He said the nonprofit is going to "pivot" its operations.
"There's just a lot that needs to be transitioned in a short amount of time, and we need to really focus on the work to transition those projects so that there's no disruption in care for people."Matt Mollica, ECHO's executive director
The city quickly lined up Urban Alchemy for a one-year, $4 million contract to manage the ARCH. The group's home base in California has raised concerns among local service providers, some of whom say the selection process wasn't transparent.
Providers organized an online petition Tuesday questioning the city's process and asking for more community input. Service providers also expressed concern about lawsuits alleging harassment, discrimination and questionable labor practices leveled against the company.
Urban Alchemy was named in two class-action lawsuits and a discrimination case in California. Some employees have been accused of harassment and on-the-job drug use. The company has denied the allegations.
Ahead of Thursday's vote, Urban Achemy's head of government and community affairs addressed the concerns.
"All of the claims so far have, to this point, been unsubstantiated," Kirkpatrick Tyler said. "We're not above reproach. We're not above criticism. But what we ask is that the criticism that we're held to ... are things that are found to be true."
Council members offered a handful of amendments to the deal and a similar agreement with the Austin Area Urban League, which will run the city's Southbridge shelter. Among other things, the amendments require quarterly reports on grievances from clients to be included in reports directly to the city manager.
Concerns aside, the group has been on the ground in Austin since earlier this year.
The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition partnered with Urban Alchemy and the nonprofit We Can Now on a grant-funded pilot for a street outreach team. ECHO's executive director, Matt Mollica, said Urban Alchemy has been active in training opportunities and expanding on-the-ground outreach.
"They've been great," he said. "They're participating ... they're showing up and getting trained and establishing outreach to several of the encampments."
Mollica didn't diminish concerns about the organization, but said it's imperative that the ARCH's operations aren't interrupted. That includes ancillary services like the health clinic, laundry service and storage programs. The city's contract with Front Steps formally ends Sept. 30.
"There's just a lot that needs to be transitioned in a short amount of time, and we need to really focus on the work to transition those projects so that there's no disruption in care for people," he said. "That's got to be a primary focus for us."
Austin Public Health, the city’s Homeless Strategy Office and the ECHO have all recommended Urban Alchemy take over the shelter.
Ahead of the vote, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he deferred to that endorsement, especially in light of the September deadline.
"Everybody recognizes that there are challenges here. It's not the perfect answer. It's not the perfect solution," he said. "There just aren't any better alternatives, as I see it, given the time that we have."
Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said she has friends who work in homeless services in California and that, based on her research, she couldn't vote in favor of Urban Alchemy.
"I'm not comfortable affirming this particular provider," she said.
Alter ultimately abstained, while Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voted against the contract.
Brauer said she hopes the new operators of the ARCH strike a better balance between trying to get folks into housing and simply sheltering them.
"Do whatever it takes. Put people first," she said. "That culture wasn't there ... for the clients."
In an email obtained by KUT, Front Steps said Austin Public Health would be leading the transition, but that there were “still many unanswered questions ... and we are doing our best to get the answers.”
This story has been updated.