As the number of Austinites living without a roof over their head continues to increase, the city’s elected leaders in January committed to opening an emergency homeless shelter by the end of September; however, officials say plans have since changed.

Austin’s homeless population has fluctuated since 2010, according to the results of point-in-time counts—a manual census of Austin’s homeless, conducted on a single night each January by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. The 2019 count showed 2,255 individuals experiencing homelessness, 1,086 of whom were unsheltered. The unsheltered population has grown 142% since 2014.

Addressing homelessness has been propped as the community’s top priority. After consistent criticism from the community for a lack of resources, City Council in January voted to overhaul its efforts. Council changed its strategy at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless—the lone city-run homeless shelter located downtown—from an emergency shelter that turned over each morning to a facility focusing on connecting clients to case management. Since the change at the ARCH—expected to take full effect by fall—would result in a capacity reduction of 60 beds, City Council unanimously resolved to construct a new emergency shelter and “make the structure and services available for use on or before Sept. 30.” The new facility would be the first expansion of city-run shelter space since the ARCH opened in 2004.

However, the city will likely miss the Sept. 30 deadline, in part, because the new facility will not be an emergency shelter,  District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen said.

“The actual opening date probably isn’t going to be by the first of October,” said Kitchen, who spearheaded the commitment in January. “The recommendation from staff has been to instead go with an actual housing-focused shelter. That does take longer [to produce], but it appears to be a better investment for the city to make.”

Kitchen said that instead of the emergency shelter model, the new shelter would operate under the same mission as the modern ARCH—connecting 100% of the clients to case management and permanent supportive housing. The strategy aligns with the city's new housing-first philosophy in addressing homelessness.

According to city documents, the city has identified a property for the new shelter, although its location remains under wraps as the negotiation process continues. Kitchen will bring a resolution June 6, directing city staff to move on purchasing the property. In consultation with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, city staff has recommended the shelter have 100 beds and low barriers to entry.

It would cost roughly $2.5 million annually to run such a shelter, according to staff estimates presented to council June 4.

Austin has also been trying to hire a homelessness strategy officer since January; however, city executives said they have been displeased with the candidate pool. Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzalez said the application process closed out last week, and the recruiter is parsing through a new pool of candidates. Gonzalez said he thinks the position will be closed out in July.

Mayor Steve Adler said he thinks the entire community is focused on addressing homelessness, but he said the people of the city are also “really, really confused” because the issue seems to be growing much larger, as the homeless individuals are more visible than they once were. During the June 4 work session, Adler maintained it was the community’s top priority and ensured the city was working hard to make progress.