Last year, the ARCH's longtime operator Front Steps announced it could no longer continue its work overseeing the shelter. Following an emergency bidding process, California-based Urban Alchemy was selected as a replacement—a process that generated concern among several City Council and community members.
“This is a really bad situation,” then-Mayor Steve Adler said of the shelter's operator turnover last July.
Council eventually voted in favor of a $4.14 million contract that brought on Urban Alchemy for a 13-month term. The nonprofit worked with Front Steps on the tail end of that group's tenure, and in October, it fully took over operations at the ARCH, located at 500 E. Seventh St.
Despite widespread reservations about Urban Alchemy and potential volatility at the shelter, Austin Public Health—which includes the city's Homeless Strategy Division—has reported positive strides under the ARCH's new management so far.
During a Feb. 15 briefing to members of the city's Downtown Commission, Akeshia Johnson-Smothers, social service agreements administration manager with APH, said Urban Alchemy engaged in a “warm transition” with Front Steps over six weeks last year and has since implemented several changes at the facility in line with the stated goals of city officials. Council approved Urban Alchemy's contract last year with several directives council members said were meant to ensure client safety and keep operations in line with the city's other homeless services.
First among those was a request for the nonprofit to keep as many Front Steps personnel as possible after that group's departure. Johnson-Smothers reported that 37 of 40 Front Steps staff members were interviewed by Urban Alchemy, the majority of whom were rehired after the shift.
Other requests related to data reporting, stakeholder collaboration and communication, and the public posting of information for clients at the ARCH have been successfully rolled out, Johnson-Smothers said.
In addition to council-mandated items, Urban Alchemy has taken on work such as cleanups around the ARCH building as well as an interior restructuring of the shelter offices and sleeping quarters.
Johnson-Smothers also noted a December APH survey of dozens of ARCH clients showed most reported having their needs met and feeling safe and respected under Urban Alchemy's leadership, results that trended slightly lower or were roughly equal to those compiled from clients at the city's Southbridge shelter.
APH now holds biweekly meetings with Urban Alchemy to catch up on ARCH operations. Johnson-Smothers said she believes those check-ins alongside the less-frequent required reporting are keeping the city updated on any potential issues and concerns.
“Based on those calls, I really think we are transitioning into definitely a different direction. We as the health department are a lot more active with this—not saying that we weren’t with the previous—but they are very receptive to us ... and our input,” she said. “[Urban Alchemy] has heeded to pretty much predominantly all of our requests as well as suggestions as it relates to meeting the needs of those experiencing homelessness and have been a willing and open partner to any emergency situations as it relates to any response that is needed.”
The February briefing from APH followed a December report from the Downtown Austin Alliance that outlined similar support for Urban Alchemy's work at the ARCH over recent months.
Bill Brice, the Downtown Austin Alliance's vice president of investor relations, said then that a “remarkable transformation” had taken place under the new contractor's watch. Brice pointed to adjustments such as the maintenance of the streetscape around the facility and a successful shelter system inside.
“The Downtown Alliance applauds Urban Alchemy for the progress they’ve made over the past two months. Our staff and committee members will be involved in forthcoming processes to reimagine the future of ARCH and social service delivery downtown and the possible redesign of this area,” Brice wrote.
Urban Alchemy's contract for ARCH management runs through September, covering the remainder of Austin's fiscal year 2022-23.