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How the Private Sector Is Helping Mitigate Austin’s Homelessness Issues

Temporary shelters on public land and conversion of aging motels are emerging as possible approaches to rehousing the homeless population of Austin, Texas, panelists said at a ULI event.

The city of Austin’s homeless population is roughly 6,000 people by some estimates. Other growing U.S. cities are facing similar issues as affordability of housing and funding for services are not keeping up.

At a ULI Austin event, speakers said that government, nonprofit, and business initiatives are tackling Austin’s homelessness predicament by, among other things, proposing temporary structures known as Sprung shelters and seeking to convert motels into longer-term housing.

Bill Brice, vice president of investor relations at the Downtown Austin Alliance, explained that his group and the Austin Chamber of Commerce are leading a $14 million campaign known as ATX Helps to put up Sprung shelters. These shelters, produced by a Canadian company called Sprung Instant Structures, feature aluminum arches connected to a weather-resistant, flame-retardant architectural fabric membrane. Benefits of Sprung shelters include the low cost of building them (about $2 million each), the speed of erecting them (about three months), and the ability to relocate or dismantle them.

Among the uses of Sprung structures are homeless shelters, disaster recovery shelters, hotels, correctional facilities, military facilities, and entertainment venues.

Cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Toronto are using these durable shelters to house homeless people. Once funds are raised, the ATX Helps coalition, formed in November 2019, will proceed with its first Sprung structure.

Brice acknowledged that shelters alone will not resolve homelessness.

“However,” he said, “is it fair and better to have people laying out [on the streets] without an alternative, or to provide them a place to be safe and stable where they can begin to get services that help them begin that path to long-term stability?”

A Sprung shelter can accommodate about 150 bunk beds and sleep 300 people. Each heated and air-conditioned shelter includes dining services, bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, and storage bins for personal belongings. Access to services like mental health care and substance abuse treatment would also be available.

The shelters will furnish a “legitimate, safe, and stable place” for homeless people to get settled before relocating to a permanent option, Brice said.

ATX Helps wants to position its Sprung shelters within a mile of downtown Austin, where several nonprofit organizations serve the homeless population.

Even just one Sprung shelter will ease the pressure on existing homeless shelters in Austin. Currently, local nonprofit groups offer only about 800 shelter beds for homeless people, Brice said. On any given night, about half of Austin’s homeless population has a roof over their head and about half does not. In January 2019, a one-night headcount in Austin and the rest of Travis County showed that 2,255 people were experiencing homelessness at that point; however, local officials put the true number closer to 6,000.

“Homelessness in Austin has reached a critical level that’s inhumane for those experiencing it,” Brian Cassidy, chairman of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said in a November 2019 news release. “This is the answer for someone who wants to get off the street now, and this addresses the most immediate and visible gap in Austin’s current efforts.”

Another gap is longer-term housing for people who have been homeless. To help close that gap, the city of Austin is looking at buying motels and converting them into living space.

“All motels for sale within the city of Austin jurisdictional boundaries will be pursued and screened,” according to a November 2019 city memo.

The city is on track to purchase a Rodeway Inn along Interstate 35 in south Austin and is considering other similar properties. Buying and renovating the Rodeway Inn will cost almost $8 million.

Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) is set to lease and run the Rodeway Inn property once it is transformed into so-called bridge housing for more than 80 people. This kind of housing lets people stabilize their lives before moving to permanent quarters.

Matt Mollica, executive director of ECHO, says the Rodeway Inn and other rehabbed motels will adhere to a “housing first” strategy. This strategy focuses first on residents addressing basic needs like housing and food before they concentrate on other concerns, such as finding a job or treating substance abuse problems.

Converted motels “will provide a place for people experiencing homelessness to access the necessary support and medical services to begin their path out of homelessness,” Mollica wrote in an email included in the city of Austin memo.

Mollica says that Austin already has wiped out homelessness among military veterans and is on the way toward wiping out homelessness among “transitional” 18- to 24-year-olds.

Eliminating homelessness altogether in Austin will require financial commitments from government agencies, philanthropic organizations, and others, says Mollica, who became head of ECHO in August 2019.

“Throwing money at the issue is the issue,” he said. “If we decide as a community tomorrow to end homelessness and to invest in it—if we really decide to do it—then we can do it. I know we can. We have the money to do it, and we have the programs to do it. And we know what works.”

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