Austin ramps up capacity at homeless shelters, but advocates say that's not the answer
Austin has committed most of the $106.7 million it received in federal COVID-19 relief money to homelessness response.
A majority of the money has been dedicated to rapid rehousing, emergency shelters — including the reopening of the downtown Salvation Army building and the Marshalling Yard project — and permanent supportive housing projects.
Some of the city's investments could take a while to make a true impact, as construction continues on hotels and other housing. Homeless advocates said that while helpful, temporary shelter won't solve the problem; the focus needs to be on lasting solutions.
More than 5,000 people in Austin are considered to be homeless, a majority of whom are living unsheltered.
The city has around 1,000 shelter beds, Dianna Grey, homeless strategy officer for the city, said. That's not enough to accommodate the city's growing homeless population. For context, Grey said Austin ranks near the bottom compared to similar cities of available shelter beds for the homeless population.
Efforts to reopen the downtown Salvation Army shelter, open the Marshalling Yard and increase capacity at bridge shelters are supposed to provide relief, Grey said.
But, only about 70% of the available shelter beds are being used, said Matthew Mollica, executive director for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, which coordinates homeless response in Austin. Advocates attribute that to a variety of barriers that exist for people experiencing homelessness, including restrictions on pets, couples and people dealing with alcohol and drug addictions.
Grey said the city has tried to break down some of those barriers for people heading to its shelters. An environment with fewer restrictions is a top priority for the Marshalling Yard, she said. The city is also evaluating its shelter system, and recommendations are expected later this summer.
But, Mollica said, the issue of homelessness and how to address it is much larger than adding more shelter beds.
"The shelter is one component of providing safety and security and getting people off the street," he said. "The real focus right now needs to be access and creation of affordable units with services.”
By the end of the summer, the city is expected to have more than 1,100 emergency shelter beds available for people who need them. In the last several months, the city has shifted some of its federal relief money — about $15.2 million — for emergency shelters and accompanying services.
However, people living in shelters are still considered homeless, and unless the city ramps up efforts to invest in permanent solutions, Mollica said, it isn’t truly solving the problem.
He said money would be better spent on permanent supportive housing — something that takes time to build. This type of housing provides access to support services, such as health care and job skills training. Experts on homelessness say permanent supportive housing is a proven solution to helping people successfully transition out of homelessness.
“This is not an either or scenario,” Mollica said. “Because if we start to create too much shelter without [permanent] places for people to go, then we are not relieving pressure and just pushing air around the balloon.”
Around 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing are expected to be available by the end of 2025, with up to one-third of those units expected to be available this year.
Mollica said more is needed.