he coalition created to build a temporary “sprung” homeless shelter says it’s making progress toward its goal, but that it can start the project with less than the $14 million it first proposed.
The ATX Helps coalition formed by the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Austin Alliance, and Austin Bridge Builders Alliance originally set a goal of raising $14 million to erect and operate a 300-bed emergency “sprung” shelter to address what it identifies as three major gaps in Austin’s current homeless solutions. But as the project has progressed, officials say it needs considerably less to get the project started.
“The ATX Helps fundraising strategy to raise money from private sources remains the same,” said Dewitt Peart, president and CEO, Downtown Austin Alliance. “ATX Helps will be able to start construction and subsequently open a 150-bed shelter once we’ve raised $5.5 million. ATX Helps will continue to raise up to $14 million to ensure future shelter expansion and sustainability for years.”
Chris Turnley, chairman of Austin Bridge Builders, said it’s important the the community recognize that ATX Helps was created specifically to address three gaps in the system.
“First, we want to create an outreach team that can build relationships with people and build that trust to start getting people into healthier situations,” said. “Second, we need to provide storage for people to reduce the risk of them losing their stuff. And third, we need to create a low-barrier shelter to start moving people toward those wraparound services they need.”
Currently there are more people “unsheltered” than there are beds. While officials are still waiting for the most recent point-in-time count, the 2019 count of people experiencing homelessness showed an five percent increase over the previous year, with a total of 2,255 sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. About 1,080 of those were unsheltered, meaning they were sleeping outside or in their cars. Currently, Austin nonprofits operate three shelters with fewer than 600 beds available.
What ATX Helps identified, says Turnley, was that no one was doing enough to address that friction between unsheltered people and local business and others. “No one could answer that question,” he said. “If someone wanted help tonight, where would they go? That’s the point that caused the most friction for a lot of Austinites, and that’s where we dove in.”
The coalition wants to construct and operate the city’s first tent-like shelter, a concept that’s proven successful in other cities to provide immediate – and temporary – safe, and clean shelter and other necessities. “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. “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.”
Turnley said the coalition continues to learn of potential partnerships and sources of funding to locate, build, and operate the shelter, thanks to community partners who are increasingly engaged.
“I think Austin does have the capacity to solve this problem,” said Turnley. “The question is if we have the organizational structure to support it. We have to keep that bridge-building mindset.”
NOTE: The article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.