The nonprofit operating two Central Austin shelters has opened a new outdoor space downtown for people experiencing homelessness as part of an effort to build up a positive environment for its guests and improve community relationships.

The big picture

The California-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy manages two neighboring city facilities downtown that now shelter more than 200 clients. This year, the group opened a new "oasis" space open to all in the downtown homeless community looking for a place to wash up, grab a coffee, rest or socialize.

Urban Alchemy began working with the city in 2022 when it was chosen to manage the Seventh Street Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, known as ARCH. While city officials expressed some reservations about the nonprofit at the time, it's since been credited with a turnaround at ARCH and recently partnered with the Downtown Austin Alliance on additional street outreach efforts.

The nonprofit then expanded its presence by taking over another city space next door, now called the Eighth Street Shelter. Austin officials bought the facility after The Salvation Army exited last spring, and Urban Alchemy reopened its doors in December.

Now several months in to operating both facilities, Urban Alchemy launched the outdoor "oasis"—a converted parking lot—for both shelter guests and other unsheltered Austinites.

A closer look

The space has seating areas, bathrooms and shade structures, and offers water and coffee for visitors. Kevin Lee, Urban Alchemy's director of operations at the two Austin shelters, said the lot is also monitored by staff to ensure a safe environment for anyone stopping by.

“We’re giving out just a little bit of hope. Make things a little bit more comfortable, not just over here at the ARCH or in the Eighth Street, but in the community as well," he said.

Looking ahead, Lee said he hopes to expand the "oasis" and add features such as a shower area, a small dog park with artificial turf, and other amenities such as plants and a new mural on the side of ARCH. He also said Urban Alchemy would like to host more community events, such as movie nights, where possible.

The space also gives the chance for community members who aren't enrolled in the shelters to connect with Urban Alchemy staff—many of whom have personal experience with homelessness—and start on the pathway to housing. While both shelters are typically full, Lee said early visits can help people get prepared for future housing opportunities.

"If we do have a bed, we’ll provide that bed to them. If there’s a service we can provide for them, ... they can come over here, and they can get services provided to them," he said. "We’re just here for the people.”

ARCH shelters more than 100 clients, while the Eighth Street shelter has about 160 beds for women and transgender clients. Lee also said the facility will soon have more than a dozen short-term bunks for overnight sleepers on a first-come, first-served basis.

Since Urban Alchemy's takeover, Lee said ARCH has started offering self-help sessions and skill classes to help guests prepare for housing and employment. He said the group is now working to expand those offerings across the block to the Eighth Street facility as well.

One more thing

As the summer heats up, many city and county facilities around the Austin area are open for anyone needing a place to cool down during the daytime.

Information on public cooling spaces—city libraries and recreation centers, and Travis County community centers—is available online.