Austin City Council vote on ARCH capacity reduction, new shelter ultimatum shifts homelessness strategy

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless is the lone city-operated homeless shelter.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless is the lone city-operated homeless shelter.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless will shrink its capacity by 60 beds, and a new shelter should be up and running by the end of September, both moves reflecting a shift in strategy in the city’s battle against its growing homelessness issue.

The new-look ARCH, the lone city-operated homeless shelter at the corner of Seventh and Neches streets in downtown Austin, will recede from 190 to 130 beds, but the amount of clients who get connected to the full menu of case management services offered in the Austin will increase from 30 percent to 100 percent. It is part of a new model Austin City Council unanimously approved at its Jan. 31 meeting.

Austin’s homeless population grew by 5 percent between 2017-18, while the amount of unsheltered homeless people jumped by roughly 22 percent. City Council, which has received constant criticism from the community for a lack of resources in battling homelessness, has listed it as its top policy priority.

Bill Brice, head of the Downtown Austin Alliance, an organization of downtown stakeholders, once called the ARCH one of the city’s “greatest failures” in addressing homelessness, but he said he supports the new scope of the ARCH.

“We know it’s critically important that we don’t just turn the dial on the ARCH; The entire system needs to be bolstered in order for the ARCH to be more effective,” Brice said.

Gus Peña, president and co-founder of Veterans for Progress and a regular critic of the city’s homelessness efforts, called the ARCH “problematic.”

“We need to do a better concerted effort to help the homeless,” Peña said.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said she could not give an exact date of when the new ARCH model will take hold but said, “definitely by the end of the year.” Hayden said the shift would require training and hiring new staff.

Although supportive of the shift, Brice emphasized the need for more shelter space, and so did City Council on Jan. 31 with its unanimous support to have a new homeless shelter up and running by Sept. 30. Brice said it is the first expansion of city-run shelter space since the ARCH opened in 2004.

City Manager Spencer Cronk will come back to City Council by May 2 with Austin’s best options for building a new homeless shelter by the end of September. The resolution, brought by District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, stops short of directing how the shelter should be built but says it cannot be next to an existing residential neighborhood without the neighbors’ consent, and it must provide a pathway to permanent housing.

Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, the nonprofit that partners with the city to run the ARCH, was unavailable for comment.

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