Austin is getting a new homeless shelter. City Council approved the $8.6 million purchase of a building for a 100-bed emergency shelter at Ben White Boulevard and Bannister Lane.
Thursday's vote came after two and a half hours of testimony from residents of the area, which has seen an expansion of homeless camps under Ben White in the last couple years. Neighbors fear the shelter would exacerbate public health and safety issues in South Austin, and many took offense to the city's selection of the site – chosen earlier this week.
Tanner Cerand, a two-year resident of the Southwood neighborhood, called the Council tone-deaf for ignoring the issues in the area and said the shelter would make "virtually no impact" on the homeless camped under the overpass.
"These people are terrorizing your community and you're doing nothing," he said.
Much of the public testimony directly addressed District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, who started the push to build the shelter back in January and represents the district where the shelter will be located.
Kitchen defended the site and the shelter, which will be a housing-focused emergency shelter that aims to connect clients with case management to more quickly move them out.
"I recognize and I understand and I support the concerns you are raising," Kitchen said, arguing that the shelter wouldn't function as a camp, similar to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and that it wouldn't jeopardize neighborhood safety.
Andres Ramos said he's a "stone's throw" from the proposed site and that he's had run-ins with homeless Austinites in the past; he said he had his bike stolen, his car broken into and some of the slats in his fence removed.
But Ramos said he'd prefer the shelter to be in his neighborhood.
"I'm asking you to put this in our backyard because I want to show you guys – and I think the South Lamar neighborhood can show you guys – what our neighborhood is all about," he said.
Residents were outraged about the timeframe of the site selection and because of the existing issues of open encampments – namely, at the intersection of Packsaddle Pass and Ben White.
Many testified to witnessing public drug use, sex and defecation in the area and suggested the shelter would make matters worse.
Emily Steinbauer, who lives a few hundred yards from the site, said she heard about the selection two days ago. She said she's frequently accosted when she walks and jogs around her neighborhood.
"I keep asking myself, 'When's the city going to step in and do something about this?'– help me to feel safe in my own home and my own neighborhood – and I think this is going to do the exact opposite," she said.
Council members defended the proposal from the dais shortly before the unanimous vote. Mayor Steve Adler said the status quo as it relates to the city's action on preventing homelessness isn't working, and he spoke directly to Council's previous reticence to acting on the issue.
"I cannot participate any longer in not acting. I cannot participate any longer in not setting up the structure and the system to fundamentally do something to change the status quo in this city," he said, "because the status quo is killing us."
City staff vetted 30 sites before deciding on the site at 1112 W. Ben White, considering the properties' proximity to transit lines, as well as its proximity to residential neighborhoods.