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Austin to look at using city facilities as temporary homeless shelters


City staff will identify five city-owned buildings for possible use as emergency shelters for homeless people.

The resolution comes as overcrowding and drug use problems have persisted near the downtown shelter.

A recent study found that 3,700 people experienced homelessness in Austin in 2016.

The Austin City Council on Thursday moved forward with a plan to research using city facilities as short-term shelters for homeless people.

The measure comes amid the persistence of overcrowding and drug use surrounding the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless downtown, where officials last week announced plans to increase the lighting, police presence and street cleaning. It also comes on the heels of Mayor Steve Adler’s proposal last month to increase hotel taxes as part of a “Downtown Puzzle” plan that would provide more money for homeless services in addition to expanding the Austin Convention Center.

The latest resolution, which was approved unanimously Thursday with Adler and Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria absent, directs city staffers to find five facilities that could be used as short-term temporary shelters for homeless people.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, the item’s lead sponsor, said the effort was a part of a coalition of organizations that are looking at the problem of people not getting the services they need because of drug use and overcrowding at the ARCH.

“The shelter piece of it would really be in support of their efforts,” Tovo said. “They’re working together and working really closely to see how to really change the situation in the area around the ARCH. There’s a lot of overcrowding there and a lot of people coming downtown. Some are seeking services. Some unfortunately are coming downtown to prey on those seeking services.”

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Proponents believe that sheltering more people would help on several fronts. It will remove people from an environment where drug abuse, especially of K2, is prevalent; help those with mental health problems get back on medications more quickly; and better connect individuals with services that could lead to permanent housing.

The resolution — which calls for simply exploring options — has no cost to taxpayers. But this research could lead to some eventual cost to the city, and some council members appear in favor of including more funding to address issues related to homelessness in next year’s budget.

A report from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition found that about 3,700 people in Austin experienced homelessness in 2016. More than one-third of those people were classified as chronically homeless, and 305 of those households had children.

The council last year adopted a resolution that would seek long-term solutions to homelessness in Austin, including looking at using city-owned facilities and property. This resolution now allows staff to begin looking at facilities that would be used in short-term emergency scenarios.

Staffers will come back to the council on Aug. 24 with a list of facilities that could potentially be used as temporary homeless shelters. Those facilities will be ranked by safety, square footage, proximity to transit and social services. Those could include facilities such as recreation centers, Tovo said.

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Council Member Ora Houston said this week that the Austin State Hospital might be another place the city could examine for temporary shelter use. But the resolution limits staff research to city-owned properties.

Before the council approved the item, Council Member Ann Kitchen added an amendment that would make sure that efforts to house homeless people temporarily wouldn’t be concentrated in downtown.

“The intent really is … to change what is going on down there, to reduce the overcrowding, to encourage people who don’t need to come down for services to seek those services elsewhere in the community,” Tovo said. “But for those who are not currently able to get a shelter bed at the ARCH or the Salvation Army, it’s to provide that safe place to sleep during this initiative.”

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