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Austin homeless shelter closure is latest setback for city

AUSTIN, Texas — The city of Austin is scrambling to fix the latest in a long line of setbacks in housing for the homeless.


what you need to know

  • HUD data shows Austin/Travis County has the highest population of vulnerable homeless families
  • According to ECHO, the city of Austin has around 1,000 beds for more than 4,000 homeless people
  • The Salvation Army announced the closure of the downtown shelter with about a month’s notice
  • The city is working to relocate about half of the 100 residents still in the shelter

At the moment, staff are working to keep residents of the Salvation Army downtown shelter off the streets. Partially funded by the city, the shelter was scheduled to close on March 15, but the mayor has vowed to keep the doors open.

Austin continues to struggle with his homeless recovery efforts in comparison to the rest of the state and nation.

While HUD reports that homelessness has decreased nationwide, Austin/Travis County has the highest number of vulnerable homeless families and the fifth-highest percentage of unaccompanied youth who are homeless and homeless in the country.

The Salvation Army downtown emergency shelter has about 250 beds out of about 1,000 available in Austin, where more than 4,000 homeless live without shelter, city data shows.

Outside the Salvation Army’s downtown shelter, neighbors helped move garbage bags filled with belongings for those who had found alternative housing.

Tuyet Sang Vo is not one of those people. She came to Austin about six months ago to find a home. What she found was a city with a severe shortage of shelters and affordable housing.

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“There wasn’t anything free anywhere, so I came back a few days later and thank God they had a bed available for me,” Vo said.

Vo is one of 100 homeless people living at the shelter when news of its closure broke on the Salvation Army website about a month ago.

“I wouldn’t have ended up here if I had other places,” she said.

Residents tell Spectrum News 1 that the only option they have been given since the announcement is to move to the Salvation Army animal shelter in Dallas.

“Single women like me get the short end of the stick because we have nowhere to go,” said Katie Reale, who has been living in a home for two months.

“It was such a slap in the face. I don’t understand how you can just undress us in a month!” said Carolyn Williams, who has been at the shelter for a month.

At the recent meeting of the Austin Public Health Committee, Mayor Kirk Watson and council members called out the Salvation Army for “mishandling” the situation.

“This is one of the significant issues that I believe has been created by closing the facility so quickly,” Mayor Watson said.

Days later, the city announced it would pay to keep the downtown emergency shelter open for 30 days and is currently working to relocate the roughly 50 remaining residents.

Austin Salvation Army area commander Major Lewis Reckline refused to speak to Spectrum News. He told the committee they couldn’t afford to maintain the aging downtown emergency shelter, which costs $100,000 a month to run.

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“We were at a point where we had to make a critical decision,” he said.

When council members asked about financial problems, Rickline told committee members that the Salvation Army Downtown Shelter had an annual net loss of about $3 million. Online financial reports show that the Salvation Army had a budget surplus of more than $1 million in 2021.

The Salvation Army also has a 12-month contract with the city for more than $250,000 as part of the city’s effort to reduce homelessness.

Although the city is providing millions to implement a homelessness strategy department, data shows that the number of homeless people in Austin/Travis County has been increasing, particularly the number of homeless without shelter.

Homeless advocate Paulette Soltani of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance says this is due to rapid population growth, a lack of affordable housing and emergency shelters.

“This is negligence. We need oversight of The Salvation Army and providers like The Salvation Army,” Soltani said.

For now, residents, including Vo, breathe a temporary sigh of relief.

“I know the crisis is scary, but the lack of humanity is scarier,” she said.

However, the future of the city center is still uncertain. The mayor says he’s interested in the city buying the property from the Salvation Army and keeping it as a shelter if the Salvation Army agrees.

Ownership records show the downtown shelter is worth $10.6 million. Real estate experts tell Spectrum News it’s worth millions more.

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