The city’s first expansion of its homeless shelter system since 2004 came closer to reality after Austin City Council June 20th supported the $8.6 million purchase of a 1.6-acre tract in hopes of turning it into a new, housing-focused homeless shelter.
The negotiation of the purchase gained unanimous support from the City Council in a vote that followed an intense and at times emotional two-hour discussion with a community of residents who strongly objected to a homeless shelter entering their neighborhood.
The lot is located at 1112 W. Ben White Blvd., positioned in between South 1st Street and Manchaca Road, on the border between the Galindo and South Lamar neighborhoods.
Residents made tearful and impassioned pleas for City Council to reconsider. They shared personal anecdotes of traumatic experiences with the homeless population, disparaged City Council for the growing homelessness crisis and harshly criticized District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen for what they called a lack of transparency for not speaking with the community before making the proposal. The item was placed on the City Council agenda late in the day on June 14, only three business days before City Council’s vote—the latest deadline allowed by law.
“This does not feel like a good faith effort to meet the community halfway,” said nearby resident Ellis Petersen.
Although the mayor and City Council members acknowledged the difficulty of the subject, they maintained its necessity. They came to the defense of Kitchen, praising her advocacy for homeless resources and her bravery for being the first council member to accept a new homeless shelter in her district. Mayor Steve Adler said every City Council member would have a day similar to Kitchen’s, as shelters will need to go in each council district if Austin wanted to make progress on its homelessness crisis.
Many residents in the City Council chamber shared fears over the existing state of the Ben White area and what a new homeless shelter would bring. They offered stories as victims of assault and public indecency, and expressed concern for what their children have and might experience in an area with a rapidly growing homelessness issue.
“We need people to act now [and help]the people dying along Ben White,” said resident Anne Clary. “It’s become a dangerous wasteland.”
Through all the testimony, Kitchen said she heard a community that was concerned for the welfare of its neighbors and the growing homelessness crisis.
Adler said as soon as the community treats the homelessness situation as another political battle, Austin will turn into Los Angeles, Portland, or Seattle—cities with some of the most out-of-control homeless problems in the country.
“People are saying ‘Change the status quo, whatever it is you’re doing, it isn’t working,’” Adler said. “I cannot participate any longer in not acting … in not setting up the structure to change the status quo in this city. The status quo is killing us.”
The new shelter is proposed to offer a maximum of 100 beds and people can only be referred to the shelter through service providers; there will be no intake or drop-in infrastructure and people will not be allowed to camp outside the shelter. The shelter will focus all of its resources on connecting the clients to case management with the eventual goal of placing them in a permanent housing situation.
Kitchen was adamant that the new shelter would not operate as the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless—the downtown homeless shelter—has for years. Adler said if the shelter does not work as intended there would not be another one like it and the city would shut it down.
“The entire city’s eyes are on this project, on this location, and we have to make it work,” Adler said.