A New Braunfels organization that works to connect local individuals experiencing homelessness to area resources and support systems is in search of a new, more permanent facility in an effort to provide consistent, centralized care.
In February 2021 the New Braunfels Housing Partners, the Comal County Homeless Coalition, the McKenna Foundation and other local nonprofit organizations joined to create the First Footing shelter program.
The program leases hotel space to house those experiencing homelessness in the New Braunfels area, and it works to connect individuals with local support resources and provide a full continuum of care.
Since beginning operations, the shelter has served more than 240 people with an average of 28 individuals receiving shelter per night, according to Kellie Stallings, the chief administrator for First Footing.
Of those served, 95 have been connected to more permanent housing options, Stallings said.
“One of the first things that we do when somebody comes to ask for help is we find out the circumstances that led to their homelessness. ... Most of the time it doesn't happen overnight. It's years in the making,” she said. “The goal, ultimately, is finding a home. If all we were doing is providing a place for someone to stay for the night, then we are enabling that homelessness, and so that's not what we're about.”
Since the program began, Stallings and her team have been searching for a larger facility to purchase where area agencies could more easily provide services and support individuals in the program.
One location that has been considered is the former Comal County Senior Citizens Center, located at 655 Landa St., New Braunfels, Stallings said, though nothing has been finalized.
The Comal County Senior Citizens Foundation purchased the former YMCA building, located at 710 Landa Street, in Summer 2021 and still owns the original location as the group is in the process of transitioning its operations, according to the foundation. The 655 Landa Street building will eventually be sold.
During New Braunfels City Council meetings held on Feb. 14 and Feb. 28, several area residents voiced concerns about the program relocating to the former senior center, citing its proximity to area schools and the downtown area.
Though no decisions have been made regarding the property, Stallings said the building’s central location would be beneficial for the First Footing Program.
“It is very close to recovery support services, it is very close to behavioral health services. ... It is right next to Section 8 public housing for elderly and disabled,” she said. “It is across the railroad tracks from the subsidized housing project run by Prospera Community Housing [Services], and it is a distance from any housing or school. It is right in [a] business section, and it is accessible by foot or by bike.”
While the location is ideal, Stallings said it is outdated, and significant renovation work would need to be completed to ensure it was safe and could meet the needs of the program.
The McKenna Foundation has awarded a small grant for operating expenses and pledged to provide some funds to acquire or renovate a space, Stallings said, but her team is still evaluating other options.
“We don’t own anything [but] we would like to own something,” she said. “We are still weighing the pros and cons. If we had already made a decision we would have already said something.”
New Braunfels Housing Partners is funded by a federal Community Development Block Grant that was awarded in 2021, local donations, and a Texas Health and Human Services Commission Health Community Collaborative grant, Stallings said.
Of those served by First Footing, 82% have lived in New Braunfels for at least six months, and the average length of time an individual has resided in the city is 11 years, she said.
“These are our neighbors, these are not people coming in from Austin or San Antonio who have their own resources,” Stallings said. “If we find out somebody is not from our community and they have support systems somewhere else, we are going to connect them to where they have the most supports.”
As housing costs have risen in the city, Stallings said the risk of local residents experiencing homelessness or struggling to afford housing has also risen.
According to the National Coalition for Homelessness and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the risk of residents experiencing homelessness rises when housing prices grow without a significant increase in housing inventory.
A 2018 Workforce Housing Study commissioned by the New Braunfels Economic Development Corporation showed that 48% of renter-occupied units were housing-cost burdened.
Stallings points to these trends as key reasons First Footing and other local nonprofit organizations are necessary and should play a role in the growth and development of the community.
“We can't control right now the number of homeless that [residents are] seeing and that any of us are seeing and that are walking through our community. But if our program continues to exist and has a permanent spot, then we can assist with that,” she said. “We want to be able to assist before it gets [to] where it's not only some people who are concerned, it's everybody who notices.”