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Austin OKs a one-year, $9.1 million contract to operate temporary homeless shelter

A 70,000-square-foot, city-owned warehouse in Southeast Austin known as the Marshalling Yard will be repurposed to house people experiencing homelessness.
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A 70,000-square-foot, city-owned warehouse in Southeast Austin known as the Marshalling Yard will be repurposed to house people experiencing homelessness.

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The Austin City Council is going forward with its plan to set up a temporary shelter for up to 300 people experiencing homelessness by the end of the month.

Council approved a contract Thursday with San Antonio-based nonprofit Endeavors to run the shelter at a site in Southeast Austin. The city announced the plan to use the repurposed warehouse earlier this year, and staff members said they believe they can open the shelter by Aug. 1. The decision came after pushback from opponents, who argued the $9.1 million agreement, funded by federal relief money, would be better spent on more permanent solutions, rather than a one-year, temporary shelter.

The deal passed with a 10-1 vote, with District 9 Council Member Zo Qadri voting against the plan. Qadri attempted to delay the plan to get more feedback on the proposal, but his amendment failed. District 5 Council Member Ryan Alter successfully amended the proposal to divert any leftover money from the one-year deal to permanent housing.

Ahead of the vote, Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis said she understood advocates' concerns but that a possible council delay may push the site's opening to the end of August.

"I appreciate the advocates coming and explaining their perspective," Ellis said. "I'm also a bit concerned about the timeline and the extreme heat ... I want to make sure that we've got places for people to go."

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza chided council members as they considered Qadri's amendment to possibly delay, saying that while it may be "unpolitic" to say, council should listen to the recommendation of staff.

"What strikes me about this amendment is it gives some impression that there is daylight ... between the Austin City Council and the professional staff," Garza said. "And that is a surefire way to stifle progress by the professional staff in making professional recommendations."

Advocate Jesus "Denver" Gonzalez, who has previously experienced homelessness, said in public comment he was "neutral" on the plan but that the city needed more shelter options for people, including people with disabilities, people living in vehicles and people in need of overnight shelter. Gonzalez added that the plan to open the shelter was quickly decided and that the city hadn't provided a lot of details on its plans to operate the shelter ahead of Thursday's vote.

"I feel like it's really inconsiderate to ask [for] feedback on a shelter that we really don't know much about," he said. "I feel like we need to get more information [on] floor plans and services available before we can properly give feedback."

This year the city has spent millions on temporary shelter, including nearly $6 million in federal and city dollars to keep the former Salvation Army shelter downtown open. Homeless service providers argue that money would be better spent to address more permanent solutions like permanent supportive housing.

Still, for decades, the city has had a shortage of shelter beds for Austinites experiencing homelessness. The city currently has 880 beds across multiple city-owned or city-run shelters. At a briefing Tuesday, the city's Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey told council members Austin needs 717 beds to fully address unsheltered homelessness.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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