Austin considering using city buildings as shelters for homeless downtown

City leaders say it's a public health and safety crisis - so now they're working on a plan to change it.

AUSTIN - It's being called a public health and safety crisis in the heart of Austin.

That's how city leaders are describing overcrowding in homeless shelters. But, a new initiative could soon change that.

In addition to adding more police patrols, better lighting and changing food distribution around the Arch downtown, the city is looking at its own real estate for places that would act as short-term emergency shelters.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo is sponsoring the Austin City Council agenda item that addresses finding temporary living spaces for the homeless seeking help.

"To approach what's going on downtown as the health and safety crisis that it is, and to treat it as we do other crises. And very often having some extra emergency shelter is a part of that," Tovo said.

Members will vote on whether to start scouting the city's own properties for five suitable spots and determine how much it would cost to use and staff them on a one to two-month basis.

Ann Howard, the director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition or ECHO says it's time to think outside the box.

"If there's a facility out there -  a church or a sports center or a hotel -this would be an opportunity to talk with a client and engage differently because they now have a place where he or she could stay," Howard said.

A recent report from ECHO says on any given night, just over 2,000 people in Austin are homeless, and just over 800 are not in a shelter.

Six hundred and fifty of them are in downtown Austin.

"It's time to be creative, and sort of holistically look at as a community what assets do we have and bring everything," Howard said. "And that's why I think this resolution with the council's important because across our government we need to look at all of our resources."

Tovo added, "We need a variety of approaches to address what has become a crisis in this community."

If approved, city staff will have to report back to the council by Aug. 24.

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