Where does the next homeless shelter go?

One of the most encouraging trends in the last few years has been City Council’s aggressive posture on addressing homelessness.

Regardless of the merits of Mayor Steve Adler’s proposed plan to expand the Convention Center, the one part of it that is unequivocally beneficial is the special assessment that downtown hotels have agreed to pay into a dedicated fund for homelessness services. And that will be on top of the respectable increase in funding that Council has approved over the past two years for a variety of services, including the Homelessness Outreach Street Team, a new rapid re-housing initiative targeting homeless youth and additional staff to help connect homeless people to services.

However, the problem is obviously much greater than the current solutions. That’s obvious taking a stroll down 7th Street, past the Austin Resource Center for Homelessness (ARCH), the overcrowded facility where people can receive temporary shelter (230 spots for single men) and referrals to services.

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The Google Maps shot in front of the ARCH, May 2018.

While the overall strategy for getting people off the streets depends a lot on getting them into permanent housing, emergency shelters are nonetheless an important part of addressing what is a grave community health crisis.

On Thursday City Council will vote on a resolution asking city staff to identify potential properties to build a new emergency shelter to provide “immediate shelter and support services for those experiencing homelessness with the intent of providing a pathway to permanent housing.” It’s not very specific about where the new facility should be. But it does specify where it should not be: 

The structure will be placed or located on property owned by the City or property owned by an entity partnering with the City, but not directly adjacent to existing residential neighborhoods. An exception to this restriction would be allowed if the adjacent neighborhood approved of the use.

A few questions:

What is a “residential neighborhood”? Is it any neighborhood that has residents, like downtown? Is it any neighborhood that does not include any commercial property? Any neighborhood that is comprised of single-family homes?

What qualifies as “adjacent” to a residential neighborhood? What percentage of properties on, say, South Lamar Blvd. could be described as “adjacent” to a residential neighborhood?

Finally, how do we determine whether the “adjacent neighborhood” approves of the shelter? I’d assume that is the inaccurate but widely-used shorthand for neighborhood association, specifically an older neighborhood association that is part of the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

I wasn’t able to get in touch with Ann Kitchen, the resolution’s chief sponsor, on Monday. Nor was I able to reach Ann Howard, the executive director of Austin ECHO, one of the big homelessness advocacy groups.

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