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Austin City Council approves item to invest millions in family violence shelter

This will be the first time the city has invested in such a shelter in 20 years.

AUSTIN, Texas — Using funding made possible by Austin's decision to "reimagine public safety," the City of Austin on Thursday approved an item to invest in a new family violence shelter. Initial funding would come from a portion that was pulled from Austin Police Department's budget. 

"For too long, women, children and survivors have been afterthoughts and footnotes in our City's budget, but no longer," said Austin City Council Member Alison Alter on Friday. 

Austin could repurpose a hotel that was once intended to house the homeless who were at high risk of COVID-19. While Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said the city council has not finalized plans regarding which hotel it will purpose, the agenda item says "the City will be converting an existing hotel property, currently serving as a Protection Lodge for homeless individuals at risk for COVID-19."

"With this vote, we will immediately begin to be able to provide more shelter to family violence survivors, by having dispersed beds and existing buildings immediately, while one of the hotels that the City is looking at could be renovated and set up as an expanded family violence shelter," said Casar.

"The passage of today’s resolution will help address one of the biggest challenges victims of family violence face, which is housing," said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. "I fully support today’s amendment because victims of family violence are often caught at the intersection of violent crime and homelessness. This action addresses both."

On Wednesday, several elected officials joined the SAFE Alliance at a press conference to announce a multi-year $8.1M investment into the new family violence shelter. Adler was in attendance, joined by SAFE staff, supporters of Item 16, several city council members, District Attorney Jose Garza and County Attorney Delia Garza.

"Today marks a significant step towards preventing domestic violence and sexual assault in our community," said District Attorney Jose Garza.

Item 16 on Thursday's city council agenda states that, if approved, the City would allocate $2.1 million from the Fiscal Year 2020-21 Austin Public Health (APH) Operating Budget for "supportive services, housing assistance, and direct client assistance." The new domestic violence shelter would be managed by the SAFE Alliance, according to the City's agenda item.

"It's hard for me to think of a vote that could save more lives and that I could be prouder of than the vote we have coming up tomorrow to expand family violence, shelter in our city and to invest in family violence shelter as a city for the first time in 20 years," said Casar on Wednesday.

Staff from the Public Works Department would be responsible for contracting for the building’s renovation into the new domestic violence shelter, and the timeline for the renovations may take 18 to 24 months after the City engages a contractor, the agenda item states.

The City operates five pro-lodges that were acquired to house those at high risk of COVID-19 with 340 rooms in all. In April, KVUE reported that 177 homeless people were staying in those rooms, and the remaining rooms were either undergoing repairs, cleaning or getting ready for residents.

Three of the five lodges are leased properties. KVUE also reported in April that the City said because those pro-lodges were designed to help with the COVID-19 emergency response, one of the pro-lodges would close in May.

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The terms of the initial agreement in the city council item would run from May 20, 2021, through Sept. 30, 2022, and include three year-long extension options worth $2 million per year to potentially make the deal worth $8.1 million in total.

Although the location of the shelter is not finalized yet, City Staff will enter an agreement with the SAFE Alliance to manage and provide assistance and supportive services at the shelter.

"Right here today in our community, people are making the impossible choice between an abusive household and experiencing homelessness," said Yvette Rouen, with SAFE. 

In the past 30 days, SAFE reported it had an average of 31 people on the waitlist for the SAFE Family Shelter. Currently, SAFE said it typically has about 90 people housed at that shelter. 

During renovations of the new shelter, SAFE expects to build up to housing 30 to 50 people. Once it's complete, SAFE said the hope is to have 70 to 100 additional beds.

Council members said the shelter hopes to help prevent families from being forced into homelessness altogether.

Two other city council items, both of which were postponed Thursday, address the City's other hotels purchased to house those experiencing homelessness. 

Item #17 aims to execute a deal with Caritas of Austin to manage Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites to "provide permanent supportive housing to disabled individuals who have experienced chronic homelessness." The City would fund $564,000 from the Fiscal Year 2020-21 Austin Public Health (APH) Operating Budget, according to the agenda item.

Item #18 aims to execute a deal with Integral Care to manage Candlewood Suites, the hotel located in Williamson County that has been at the forefront of numerous protests by neighboring residents and businesses. The City would fund $423,000 from the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 Austin Public Health (APH) Operating Budget, according to the agenda item.

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