For years, Austin didn’t focus on finding shelter for people living outdoors. Instead, the city prioritized longer term solutions, like getting people into apartments.
That philosophy at City Hall has changed.
Under Mayor Kirk Watson, the city opened a 300-bed shelter during the summer’s record-breaking heat, and it aims to open more in the coming months. But people serving unhoused Austinites say they haven’t been clued in on many decisions — and they wonder what’s coming next.
Where to go
Just after 8 a.m. on a Thursday at Central Presbyterian Church, volunteers plated heaping portions of scrambled eggs, as they do every week.
The church’s common area teemed with nearly 100 people — some getting clothes; others stocking up on essentials like sunscreen and shampoo, period products and bus passes.
Cheyna Langston was there for the eggs. Real eggs — not the bootleg, powdered eggs other kitchens serve people experiencing homelessness.
Langston, who is chronically homeless, is one of a handful of Austinites who spoke with KUT that day as the city was opening the shelter in Southeast Austin known as the Marshalling Yard.
She’s honest. She said she doesn’t want to stay there. That’s common, especially among women who are leery of what’s called a “congregate shelter,” where beds are lined up in a grid in one big room. Langston said she has heard stories about sexual assaults at shelters in Chicago, where she first became unhoused. It’s a constant fear.
“We’re hearing about people getting raped, taken advantage of, and then you go outside, yeah, there’s the same risk factor,” she said. “But you have more people like you and like-minded [people who are] watching your back … I’ve been on both sides.”
Langston is bipolar and said she has bouts of psychoses. She uses drugs. She’s trying to quit, but admits she doesn’t always do the work. It’s hard. A recent cancer diagnosis has made it harder.
She said she wants to find programs that will help her stay clean. And those aren’t cheap — and they’re typically not offered at shelters.
For now, she’s still going to stay outdoors.
In a vacuum
Andi Brauer, who does outreach for Central Presbyterian, had been scurrying around all morning, stealing bites of an apple when she could while helping clients. One needed a bus pass. Another needed to fill out a form to get on a housing waitlist.
Another wanted to get to the Marshalling Yard, and Brauer wasn’t quite sure what to tell her. She said the city hasn’t been communicating. Opening the shelter, she said, was “done in a vacuum.”
“They should be able to answer an email. They should be able to answer a phone call for someone that works at a church that’s advocating for people, that’s doing work on the ground,” she said. “They should be accountable. It should be transparent. You can answer a one-minute email.”
The lack of communication, she wagered, was due in part to the sudden resignation of the city’s homeless strategy officer this summer.
Down the street at the Trinity Center, Eunice Garcia said the city should be helping — regardless of the reason for the communication issues.
Garcia’s clients were asking how to get set up in the new shelter, that they’d heard to go to Trinity Center. But Garcia was in the dark, too.
“We’re one of the main providers for our unhoused community, and for us to not be able to say anything is really frustrating and it’s really disheartening when people come to us and we have nothing to say,” she said.
Brauer and Garcia — and three other employees from large-scale service providers who wouldn’t go on the record — say the coordination needs work.
But all of them agreed these shelter beds are a necessity.
A shift in strategy
For decades, the city hasn’t had enough shelter space for its homeless population.
A 1999 look at homelessness in Austin — when Watson was mayor the first time — found the city needed to add 863 shelter beds.
More than 20 years later, the city’s graphics have updated, but the count is similar: 717 beds.
Under Mayor Steve Adler, Watson’s predecessor, the city’s response was arguably more focused on getting people into housing.
Think: paying landlords to put up tenants transitioning from homelessness or setting up permanent supportive housing developments — apartments that come with services, yes, but ultimately take years to develop. (While it did open two shelters, the city focused more heavily on housing-focused programs.)
Studies have foundthis is a successful strategy. Getting folks jobs and health care, along with stable housing, will get them back on their feet.
During Adler’s tenure, Austin’s housing market exploded. Market-rate rents and property values went through the roof. As a result, it’s been near-impossibleto get landlords to agree to take on homeless tenants with guaranteed vouchers for housing — a strategy called “rapid rehousing.”
And buying property to redevelop takes time in any market.
Watson’s administration has diverged from that strategy. And the shift has given providers — the folks helping get Austinites off the streets — whiplash.
Watson doubled down on that strategy Tuesday at a forum on homelessness hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance. He said the city is going to keep providing more shelters, but acknowledged the response should also include housing and mental health services.
“Let me just come at it from this point of view … when we talk about it being multifaceted, there are different parts of this process that will address different needs along the way that I think will make a difference,” he said.
Watson argues getting more than 300 shelter beds in place in less than a year is progress.
“The pendulum has swung the other way,” Chris Baker, executive director of The Other Ones Foundation, said. The nonprofit runs the 5-acre site with tiny homes out by the airport on land that was gifted to the city by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019.
Baker — and anyone working in homeless services — will tell you shelter is not housing. Shelter is quicker. But in the long run, it’s more expensive. It’s also not a longterm solution.
“We are doing things without a lot of community feedback and without a lot of communication, and the good side of that is things are happening.” Baker said. “It would be nice if we could get more in the middle — and maybe eventually we will — but this is what we tend to do: swing back and forth, really hard this way, really hard that way.”‘
For homeless Austinites and service providers, there are still very immediate and very real questions about the longterm strategies going forward.
Currently, the city’s shelter plans don’t last beyond a year at the Marshalling Yard. It’s unclear when the planned takeover of the downtown Salvation Army shelter will open, but even that agreement has a yearlong expiration date.
Watson has committed to working with Integral Care to boost mental health services that are more outreach-focused, to fill in gaps for folks like Langston, who don’t want to be in a shelter.
For now, Langston says she’s grateful for the little things — and the support system at Central Presbyterian.
“It’s something,” she said. “We all forget about the simple things. I’m just trying to figure it out and be at peace with me first.”