For 15 years, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless—the city-owned homeless shelter downtown—has offered the homeless community daily walk-in services, from laundry, restrooms and showers, to mail, charging stations and storage.

Those resources, currently available whether or not a person stays overnight in the ARCH, are used by an average of 300 people per day, according to ARCH staff; however, the city will soon shift its strategy and, among other things, cut off these services from anyone not staying in the shelter. Officials say there is no plan yet in place to offer the unsheltered homeless population essential day resources.

The change is part of Austin’s effort to streamline its homelessness strategy and focus on moving people out of homelessness and into housing. Recommendations from the National Alliance to End Homelessness include making the shelters smaller, committing 100% of the clients to case management and eventually setting each client up in permanent housing, which experts say takes at least 3 to 6 months per client. The change also means focusing all services and resources on the shelter’s in-house population.

The ARCH, which will shrink from 195 to 130 beds, is scheduled to begin this new operation in the fall. The city is preparing to purchase a 1.6-acre Central South Austin tract to expand its shelter system for the first time since the ARCH opened in 2004. The new shelter will also only offer resources to its in-house clients. Although the change promises long-term results, some are worried about the immediate impact of cutting much of the unsheltered homeless population off from day resources.

“I’m very happy about the new shelter space, but one thing we haven’t talked much about is providing a place where homeless people can go during the day for services, information and access to the shelter,” said Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, the non-profit that runs the ARCH. “It’s heavily needed and I haven’t heard anything about it.”

Some city officials say a plan needs to be in place, but others say moving ahead with the housing-first shelter program is a top priority and needs to be executed with urgency.

‘People are still outside’

Austin City Council will vote June 20 whether to purchase the Central South Austin property for a new shelter at 1112 W. Ben White Blvd. City documents show staff recommends a maximum of 100 beds, and to keep services limited to those actively engaged in case management—no walk-ins. Mayor Steve Adler will also offer a resolution directing staff to figure the next steps in the homelessness battle.

“We’re all concerned about where [the unsheltered homeless population] should go; this is a real challenge that we’re all going to have to deal with,” Adler said. “I don’t know what the plan is going to be.”

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, whose district surrounds the proposed new shelter location, said shelters are only one piece of the solution and there needs to be a plan in place to serve the unsheltered population.

“The extent to which people still have to live outside just begs for day services, one more shelter is not enough,” Kitchen said. “I’m hoping it is figured out before the ARCH switches over.”

Kitchen said since the ARCH and the new shelters will be housing-focused and not a “drop-in center” a major issue is offering storage space for those who remain unsheltered. Kitchen and Adler said they see a future in which there are smaller shelters throughout the city that can offer services.

“It would make sense to me if something like [the new shelter] was located in each of the 10 city council districts,” Adler said.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose 9th district surrounds the ARCH, emphasized a phased-in approach for the ARCH. Although she hopes the city can find a way to provide day services for the broader unsheltered population before the ARCH changes over, she said creating a housing-first shelter system is the top priority.

“[Offering day services] is important but we need to move forward with the housing-focused approach,” Tovo said. “We know we can get people into housing more quickly.”

A spokesperson for Austin Public Health said the city is working with "community partners" to try and identify alternative avenues for members of the homeless population who are not staying in a shelter to continue accessing daytime services.

McCormack said the ARCH and new shelter will get people into housing at the pace at which they have adequate resources. However, he underlined the need to continue offering services to those sleeping without a roof.

“We can be as housing-focused as we have resources,” McCormack said. “But while we’re attacking the housing issue, people are still outside and on sidewalks.”


Editor's Note: This story was edited to include a comment from Austin Public Health.