Austin Abandons South Austin Shelter As It Prepares To Buy Hotels To House The Homeless

Nov 12, 2019

Austin is no longer pursuing a 100-bed shelter in South Austin and could opt instead to provide housing in motels for homeless Austinites.

The move comes after a suggestion from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), the nonprofit that coordinates Austin and Travis County's efforts to address homelessness. Council members will vote on the proposal at their meeting Thursday.

The city announced late last week that it might buy a motel near Oltorf Street and I-35 for $8 million to provide low-barrier housing for roughly 80 people, meaning they could, after a referral, stay in a unit for at least 90 days without undergoing any mandatory case management or treatment requirements.

ECHO says it's prepared to raise money to operate the units while the city finalizes the purchase. It would then take over operations and coordinate on-site services for clients going forward.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who first proposed spending $8.6 million on property at Ben White Boulevard for an emergency shelter, said she would support the decision to rehab the motel – and the move to pursue similar housing solutions.

She said using motel rooms would be quicker and more cost effective.

"In that sense, I hear your recommendation to not go forward with the actual location along Ben White, and I support that," Kitchen said. "I agree with that, because ... [this is] part of a larger strategy."

The decision comes as the city crystallizes its strategy to house Austinites after rolling back rules governing behavior related to homelessness. City Council's plan to end homelessness, which it passed last year, focused more on long-term strategies. Those efforts included buying and retrofitting property before people could be housed and connected to services – a hurdle to immediately addressing homelessness.  

As part of that strategy, council members earlier this year approved buying property off Bannister Drive and Ben White Boulevard in South Austin for an emergency shelter that would require mandatory case management – similar to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. Neighbors argued the shelter was too close to schools, however, and that the city's decision-making process didn't include enough public input.

At the council's work session Tuesday, ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica said the hotel rooms near I-35 and Oltorf wouldn't require immediate rehabilitation to meet standards of what's called "bridge housing." If the city wanted to do what is called "permanent supportive housing," it would need to install sinks in the rooms to meet federal standards; it could use federal housing vouchers for that.

Mollica has introduced similar bridge housing while working with both the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver and at a nonprofit serving San Francisco's homeless population.

"It has an immediate impact. The units are ready for occupancy," Mollica said, "and until the money's raised to have it run smoothly and fluidly through ECHO, I believe ... there'd still be a desire to use the space for folks who are in existing programs."

Mayor Steve Adler called the solution more "cost-effective," as the cost per room would be about half that of the South Austin shelter.

The decision comes as the state and private backers offer shorter-term solutions for housing. Last week, the governor directed the Texas Department of Transportation to set aside 5 acres of land for an outdoor campsite near U.S. Highway 183. That announcement came after the unveiling of a plan to build a 300-bed temporary shelter in the downtown area from a coalition of business groups and nonprofits known as ATX Helps.