A $14 million campaign and 300-bed shelter: Austin’s private sector leads new coalition to address homelessness

The ATX Helps coalition launched with a press conference on Nov. 7.
Austin Chamber of Commerce board chair Brian Cassidy (right) announced the launch of ATX Helps Nov. 7 alongside (from right) Downtown Austin Alliance CEO Dewitt Peart, Leah Hargrave, a deacon at Mosaic Church and Chris Turnley, chairman of the Austin Bridge Builders Alliance. CHRISTOPHER NEELY/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

Austin Chamber of Commerce board chair Brian Cassidy (right) announced the launch of ATX Helps Nov. 7 alongside (from right) Downtown Austin Alliance CEO Dewitt Peart, Leah Hargrave, a deacon at Mosaic Church and Chris Turnley, chairman of the Austin Bridge Builders Alliance. CHRISTOPHER NEELY/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

For the past year, city officials stressed that they could not alone carry the burden of addressing homelessness and needed help from the private sector in working toward solutions. The private sector announced Nov. 7 that they are answering the call.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Austin Alliance announced the launch of ATX Helps, a coalition of private sector, non-profit and faith-based groups that aims to raise $14 million to construct a 300-bed emergency homeless shelter near downtown Austin that offers a full menu of case management and healthcare services. Austin currently has 812 active shelter beds, a number that has remained stagnant in recent years even as the homeless population has grown.

Coalition officials said it would cost $2 million to build the Sprung shelter, a canvas-walled structure they said would provide immediate, temporary and safe space for those experiencing homelessness to stay. The shelter will also provide a navigation center that aims to connect people to case management, healthcare, housing and employment opportunities.

“Homelessness in Austin has reached a critical level that’s inhumane for those experiencing it,” Brian Cassidy, board chairman of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said. “This is the answer for someone who wants to get off the streets now, and this addresses the most immediate and visible gap in Austin’s current efforts.”

ATX Helps expects to raise the initial $2 million in capital funds by the end of 2019 so a navigation center can be built by the first quarter of 2020. Dewitt Peart, CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the goal is to have the structure be at least within a half-mile of downtown Austin.

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that the state would be clearing homeless encampments under Austin’s highways, he said he was working with this coalition to provide housing options for those experiencing homelessness. Cassidy said Nov. 7 that they are working with Abbott to potentially build the shelter on state-owned land. John Wittman, Abbott’s press secretary, confirmed the governor’s office was working with the coalition. Peart said the coalition was still in the site-scouting process, and that the shelter would require at least 1.5 acres.

Peart said, once up, the shelter would offer a variety of resources, from case management, healthcare and family reunification to housing navigation, storage and showers. He said the shelter would be “housing-focused” but also low-barrier. Anyone who wants to be connected to housing, or with case management will be.

Chris Turnley, chairman of the Austin Bridge Builders Alliance—a leader in the coalition—said low-barrier means anyone who can make it to their bed without harming themselves or others would be allowed in. The coalition is aligning closely with the similar strategy taken in San Diego, which Turnley, Peart and Cassidy lauded during a Nov. 7 press conference.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he was “encouraged and appreciative” for the aims of the coalition.

“Shelters can be an important part of the range of housing we need and are most effective when associated with a housing exit strategy,” Adler said in a text message.

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen said the coalition is a “step in the right direction” and that the entire community needs to continue to step up if the city is going to end homelessness. District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said a partnership in which the coalition works on short-term solutions while the city focuses on permanent solutions “has the ability to be successful.”
By Christopher Neely

Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


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