Austin Looks for Routes Out of Its Homelessness Crisis

Under pressure, the city experiments with fast and sustainable strategies

Austinite Steven Potter (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For more than a year, the city of Austin, its social service partners, and primary and behavioral care providers have operated protective lodging facilities, mostly in converted motels acquired as part of the city's long-term strategy to end homelessness, for unhoused Austinites at high risk of dying from COVID-19. Outreach workers make referrals to the "ProLodges," and each person who is accepted gets their own room and bathroom, allowing them to isolate in place.

The ProLodges were cobbled together by motivated city staff with the help of dedicated street-level outreach workers and service providers. They came together with extraordinary speed as COVID-19 surged into Austin. Now, as the pandemic fades, so do the ProLodges – from five at the height of the pandemic, to two now, as guests exit into other housing options, or back to the street. As a public health intervention, ProLodges have clearly succeeded. Housing status is not tracked when people are tested for COVID-19, so it's unknown precisely how many Austinites who've contracted the virus are experiencing homelessness. But there has been only one known outbreak among people living together without stable housing – at Downtown's Salvation Army group shelter, which at the time was still sleeping more than a dozen people in its dorm rooms (it implemented more stringent distancing restrictions, which limited its capacity, afterward).

For Steven Potter, who has lived off and on Austin's streets for 11 years, it's likely that a room at a ProLodge saved his life. Toward the end of 2019, he developed a pulmonary embolism, which can lead to cardiac arrests and other life-threatening complications. He made it through that scare relatively unscathed, but doctors warned that his blood clots could be caused or worsened by prolonged sitting – a sometimes unavoidable part of life on the street.

“I forgot how good it felt to sleep on a bed ... Having the ability to take a shower without devoting half of your day to it was a big improvement for me.”– Steven Potter

Potter's medical condition qualified him for a ProLodge, and in April 2020, he was able to move into his room. "I forgot how good it felt to sleep on a bed," Potter told us, recalling his first few nights at the former Motel 6 that would be his home for the next year. By his recollection, he hadn't slept in a bed for multiple nights in a row since 2016, when he was staying at the Nueces Super Co-op while working at the Salvation Army shelter and attending classes at Austin Community College. "Hav­ing the ability to take a shower without devoting half of your day to it was a big improvement for me," Potter said. (Public showers in Austin are few, and demand is high.)

There are drawbacks to ProLodge life. The facilities are wrapped with fencing and have 24/7 on-site security provided by Austin police, which can make the space feel more like confinement than a respite. Guests are required to check in upon arrival, with a curfew from 8pm to 7am. "It's the difference between being a client and being a guest," Potter told us. "People renting a room at a motel or in an apartment don't have those kinds of rules and regulations."

Potter serves on Austin's Homelessness Advisory Council alongside others with lived experience; he spends time talking to unhoused Austinites about which programs and services are working and which need improvement. He landed a job working the split shift at a storage facility not long after checking into his ProLodge, so he was granted an exception to its curfew. When he wasn't working, he spent most of his time in his room catching up on TV (especially Rick and Morty and The Walking Dead) and working on his art.

Building a New Bridge

That room came at a time in Potter's life that was most opportune, given his health. Advocates for the unhoused have tried to persuade city leaders that ProLodges provide a further benefit: They model how the city can run an effective "bridge shelter" program, an important element of Austin's evolving strategy to end homelessness.

People in cities who need stable housing exist on a continuum, ranging from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate rental and ownership. (See chart, below.) The goal of homelessness response is to help people, with support services and case management, move along that continuum at their own pace, and not fall back. For many, their last stop will be permanent supportive housing, where those services and case management continue indefinitely. Austin needs thousands of PSH units and only has hundreds; slowly creating them, including by converting motels, has been the focus of the city's efforts.

Life on the street is traumatic. It often takes the comfort and support of a long-term supportive housing program to work through that trauma. But the grim reality is that people who've been on the street for a long time have an average life expectancy of about 50 years. Others simply cannot adjust to life in community, with rules and expectations that didn't exist as they made their own way on the street. The longer someone spends without shelter, the harder that adjustment becomes. They fall back on the continuum.

Bridge shelters are a new addition to Austin's continuum. They're a step up from group shelters, staffed by overworked and underpaid attendants, that exist mostly to provide respite from harsh conditions living outdoors, without much work done to resolve a guest's homelessness. Temporary emergency shelters like the Salvation Army remain important, but their use appears to be on the decline nationwide. One conclusion from that data, Ending Community Homelessness (ECHO) Executive Director Matt Mollica told us, is that some people living on the street might be more interested in other interventions. When interviewing Austinites who are living unsheltered, they'll often say as much, at least as to the shelter options here.

Bridge shelter that offers privacy and security for people and their belongings can allow them to rest, reflect, and set goals to resolve their unique unhoused experience. Research in cities that have offered bridge shelter shows that its guests are much more likely than those in group shelters, or on the street, to enter long-term housing programs, and less likely to fall back into unsheltered homelessness once they do.

The most complete analysis is from Seat­tle, which looked at 1,635 people who in 2020 were in different group shelters, some with and some without on-site services, as well as in bridge shelter in hotels – quickly created to reduce group shelter populations as the Seattle area weathered the nation's first severe COVID-19 outbreak. Of the bridge shelter guests, 60% exited into permanent housing, compared to 13% of those in group shelter, roughly the same as in the prior year pre-pandemic. The vast majority of the latter left for "unknown" destinations, which usually means back to the street.

This Is Not Rocket Science

The SouthBridge shelter, a former Rodeway Inn acquired by the city and used until recently as a ProLodge (Courtesy of City of Austin)

In Austin, according to data obtained through a public information request, occupancy at all five ProLodges has averaged about 57% between March and May of this year. City staff reports that over the full existence of the program (from March 2020 to this month), 615 people have been guests at a ProLodge; approximately 500 have left, with "close to 250" moving on into a housing program. On average, ProLodge guests are housed 64 days after enrolling in a housing program.

As the lead agency in Austin and Travis County's homelessness response system, ECHO submits data to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. While this data does not separate different housing interventions as precisely as in the Seattle study, it does show a steady increase in exits from temporary to permanent housing, from 19.3% in 2015 to 30% in 2019. Mollica says the findings in Seattle mirror what he's observed with ProLodges.

That success is not exactly rocket science. "Any successful housing program in the past 10 years spent an enormous amount on hotel vouchers," Mollica told us. "Getting someone into a hotel room just helps them stay in touch with us and their service providers; it just makes it easier to keep in contact with people." Outreach workers and case managers can only accomplish the tasks that help end homelessness, mundane to those who've never lived without housing – getting an I.D., refilling prescriptions, making it to medical appointments and job interviews – if they can find their clients. If those clients go missing, and the beds in a federally funded program go unfilled, HUD can take that money back.

On the other hand, programs created to control the spread of COVID-19 are being paid for with different federal funds, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That means Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey and others at the city must assert that ProLodges are not bridge shelters, or else they'd be ineligible for FEMA reimbursement of 70% or 100% of their costs. (It varies based on when those costs were incurred.) For unknown reasons, FEMA Region 6, which includes Texas, has refused to reimburse "non-congregate" shelter operations like ProLodges, even though other regions have. "The Emergency Operations Finance team is still working through the process for FEMA reimbursement," a city spokesperson said. Operations costs for all five ProLodges between March and December 2020 were $15 million.

Functionally, though, the ProLodges clearly are bridge shelters, and a model for such facilities post-COVID. "We learned a lot [from ProLodges]," Grey said in an exclusive interview with the Chronicle. "They were a public health intervention, [but if] during that time, we could also utilize an individual's stability to help them find housing, we needed to do so. And we've been pretty successful." In addition to that case management, "It's easier for people to look forward and find housing or engage in services. We saw the value in that type of shelter in terms of helping us move people into permanent housing more quickly."

We Have a Plan for That(?)

A common criticism of Austin's homelessness response is that there's "no plan." There is the beginning of one; in 2018 Council adopted ECHO's Action Plan to End Home­less­ness, which outlines broad goals and describes programs that could help the community achieve them, but leaves funding and timing undetermined. A year ago, consultants delivered a report detailing exactly how many shelter beds and housing units all along the continuum Austin needs to achieve "functional-zero" homelessness (where the number being housed each month exceeds the number entering homelessness) and roughly how much that would cost.

Earlier this year, government, business, nonprofit, and philanthropic leaders convened a "Summit to Address Unsheltered Homelessness," which established a new benchmark: getting 3,000 Austinites living without shelter into housing by April 2024. There are milestones along the way – 100 housed by July, 200 by August, 400 by December, 1,200 by next October. (ECHO expects to release data on the July milestone within two weeks.)

Overall, this will cost, at a minimum, $515 million, of which $275 million is one-time capital costs to build or renovate properties. The remaining $240 million is for operations, which will require some lesser amount of ongoing funding indefinitely. Council has committed about $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the $515 million goal, and it has called on Travis County to match that from its roughly $247 million in ARPA funds.

On June 28, the Commissioners Court voted to allocate about $74 million of those funds, but only about 1% of that total is linked specifically to homelessness: $325,000 for behavioral health services that were initally funded by the CARES Act, and $250,000 for pre-planning a potentially larger investment in mental health and substance abuse treatment, including potential expansions to the Sobering Center. The remainder of the county's ARPA funding is slated to be allocated in January 2022, after community engagement; homelessness services are one part of one of four buckets currently under consideration for that $173 million. In other words, the county is not very close to making a $100 million commitment. Even if they were, that leaves $315 million to be found somewhere else, soon.

Helping people living without shelter take a first step along the continuum now has much more urgency than before, as the city prepares to enforce new local (approved by voters on May 1) and state (signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 15) regulations banning camping on public property. Those encampments, as unpopular as they are among Austinites with homes, allowed people to live where outreach workers and case managers could find them. Finding solutions that can do the same, quickly, is critical, as unhoused Austinites slip back into hiding to avoid encounters with law enforcement: hassles, citations, arrests.

The Austin Police Department will ramp up its enforcement of camping bans on Aug. 8, and Grey says bridge shelter is one option on the table; others include sanctioned campsites, temporary shelters (which can now offer more beds as the pandemic recedes), and new affordable housing, an area where Austin continues to fall short of the goals set by the Strategic Housing Blueprint adopted by the city in 2017. Prioritizing among these options has not been easy, thanks to varied and muddled direction from Council and a lack of resources for Grey's Homeless Strategy Division, only created last year and housed at Austin Public Health.

Grey took over in January; the city's first HSO, hired in 2019, lasted one month on the job. She only has funding for four employees, which is partly by design, as the city pilots having a single department to coordinate homelessness response; several hundred city employees throughout many departments have jobs that involve responding in some way to the city's homelessness crisis. But it is widely agreed at City Hall that HSD is severely under-resourced, and it's expected Grey will have more positions funded in the upcoming budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins October 1.

New Year, New Reality

When Grey started, she began work with a Council with two new members replacing outgoing progressives who championed the 2019 vote to lift restrictions and criminal penalties for camping, sitting and lying, and panhandling, a decision that was effectively repealed by voter approval of Prop­o­si­tion B in May. One of those new members, Mac­ken­zie Kelly in far Northwest Austin's Dis­trict 6, avidly supported Prop B; she successfully swayed her colleagues in her first weeks in office (and of Grey's tenure) to delay purchasing a Candlewood Suites motel in her district, which straddles the Travis and Williamson county line, to convert into a PSH property to be operated by Cari­tas of Austin. While Council returned the following week to vote 10-1 to approve the purchase (Kelly voting no), the sale has still not been closed, as Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell and his colleagues have threatened to sue.

A campsite outside East Austin’s Terrazas Branch Library (Photo by Mike Clark-Madison)

Even more mired in political quicksand is the on-and-off Council desire to find and approve sanctioned campsites, such as the one Abbott created in a fit of pique on state-owned land in Southeast Austin, now operated by The Other Ones Foundation as Camp Esperanza. Staff rejected the concept in 2019 as costly and ineffective, but as Aug. 8 looms the idea regained appeal, only to get sandbagged again once Council saw a list of sites to be considered and cost estimates for safe and secure camps with utility service.

In a July 1 memo, staff announced its list of 78 potential sites had been reduced to just two, both city-owned, and estimated the two would cost just under $3 million to open and operate, not including utilities. Neither are zoned for residential use; once the city's lawyers determine whether rezoning is required, staff will engage with neighbors about operations at the sites. The memo also says selected city-owned parking lots could serve as safe overnight places for people living in cars. The lots would operate from 10pm to 6am and include bathrooms, hand washing stations, and security; staff estimates they would cost $80,000 to set up. Staff plans to provide more details by July 22, ahead of Council's next meeting on July 29.

Lots of the politics here stem from fear among neighborhoods of seeing chaotic scenes of hundreds of Austin's unhoused poor gathered outside for a chance at services or shelter, like those formerly found outside Downtown's Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). Those fears dissipate when bridge shelters and supportive housing properties actually open and their neighbors see how they actually operate. In North Central Austin, CM Greg Casar reports that his office has received about 60 emails from constituents related to the two ProLodges in his District 4, only five of which were complaints; more than 300 new supportive housing units should be produced in D4 by the end of 2022. That compares to more than 2,000 emails, many brimming over with fear and outrage, that Kelly has received from D6 residents about the Candlewood Suites.

“People are more stable within [bridge] shelter, because they have hope. When they come in and we connect them with housing, not just offer a place to be out of the elements, that really changes their experience.” –Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey

The quiet success of the ProLodges has made Grey eager to bring bridge shelters online. "People are more stable within [bridge] shelter, because they have hope," Grey told us. "When they come in and we connect them with housing, not just offer a place to be out of the elements, that really changes their experience. People are not coming and going. That really creates a different atmosphere."

That's made more likely by having services in place before guests move in. As the ProLodges were quickly brought online during the peak of COVID-19, staff asked Council to authorize contracts with agencies that could provide the case management, behavioral health, and social work services to help guests stabilize. Grey's team is doing the same as it brings its first post-COVID bridge shelter online, as a central component in the Housing-Focused Home­less Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative approved by Council in Feb­ruary. The HEAL concept is to target specific encampments with intensive outreach and get their residents into shelter, so that those sites – unpopular with their neighbors and a major headache for CMs whose districts include them – can be cleared.

Thus far, 23 people at one such site, outside East Austin's Terrazas Branch Library, have been placed into rooms at the city's Southbridge shelter, the former Rodeway Inn acquired by the city and used until recently as a ProLodge. Southbridge residents must engage with case managers to try to secure longer-term housing but can, with bridge shelter, begin to stabilize their lives and then move along the continuum at a sustainable pace. In May, Council approved nearly $2 million in funding for rapid rehousing as a next step for HEAL clients, to be provided by Family Eldercare and Integral Care; the former, which has a strong track record in RRH, will likely serve most Southbridge residents. As of July 2, 13 residents have been referred to housing by Family Eldercare.

Using What We Have

The former Rodeway was the first property identified, in 2019, as part of the city's motel acquisition strategy to purchase sites to convert into supportive housing, such as the Candlewood Suites. The city says Southbridge will have 24/7 on-site security and new fencing, to assuage concerns from its neighbors. Also in May, Council authorized a contract with Front Steps, the nonprofit that operates the ARCH, to also operate Southbridge, for $2.6 million, with three potential 12-month extensions. That contract is expected to be executed by July 12, as Front Steps tries to hire staff for Southbridge; in the interim, city employees will run the bridge shelter.

Given the drama that's surrounded the ARCH for years, Front Steps already has some reputation challenges, and it's lost its three top leaders in the last few months. Front Steps Board Vice President Haggai Eshed told us there is no reason to be concerned: "We are partners with the city and our goal is to be part of the solution to ending homelessness," Eshed said. "We have continued to work our PSH, RRH, and other housing programs."

As Front Steps regroups, Grey says she is also not worried about the prospects for Southbridge. "We created this shelter and this whole initiative on a really aggressive time­line," Grey said. "We hoped that we would have Front Steps folks on the ground from Day One, but we've been able to utilize staff and experience with the ProLodges to fill that gap. We feel that solution is working well and it will be temporary."

The city owns two of the five properties used as ProLodges and maintains its leases on two others. The Rodeway Inn and a Country Inn and Suites on I-35 are the two the city owns; staff says the Country Inn and Suites could later become a bridge shelter or supportive housing. Council would still need to approve contracts with their prospective operators, and the costs of those aren't immediately clear. Based on the ProLodges data, staff estimates a bridge shelter with 55 rooms could serve 400 guests over one year, at a cost of about $3.8 million. From the ProLodge data and the experience in Seattle and elsewhere, that translates into about 250 people moving along the continuum to more stable housing. There are about 2,200 people living without shelter in Travis County on any given night.

On June 25, the city renewed its lease of the Days Inn at 3105 N. I-35, which had been a ProLodge and will be converted into another bridge shelter. As a ProLodge it could shelter 55 people; staff is exploring whether to fill rooms at double occupancy to increase capacity, at the cost of making it less appealing to people coming off the street. It's expected to be open in August, again staffed with city employees while a service provider is selected to operate it long-term.

“More resources at campsites would be better, but the fact is hundreds of people have been camping for the past two years in spaces that have none of those things.” –Council Member Kathie Tovo

Casar, like his colleagues, will support any option available to the city to provide shelter, but sees advantages in a bridge shelter model over sanctioned campsites. "If we can get people a bathroom and air conditioning by setting up a hotel room, that might be better than just a piece of dirt where somebody can pitch a tent," Casar told us. "If we could pull just as many people out of homelessness through hotels" as at sanctioned sites, the former "will often prove to be a better use of these dollars; you're going to house people faster [than by] trying to set up dozens of places where people can camp."

CM Kathie Tovo doesn't disagree that hotels can provide superior shelter, but she's not convinced they'd be faster. "I continue to believe that we need alternative spaces for people to go right away," Tovo told us. "Those aren't going to be permanent housing solutions and they're not even going to be [bridge] shelter; we haven't identified enough options to fill that category."

While the HEALing of Terrazas allowed for people to be placed at Southbridge, the people who were forcibly removed from their protest campsite outside City Hall, Tovo says, were not offered a place to go because there is no place for them to go. "We need to identify these spaces quickly and ensure that the residents there will have access to water, restrooms, and a level of security on-site." Tovo acknowledges that offering the bare minimum of services at sanctioned campsites is a tough pill to swallow, but it's the reality when faced with limited funding that she'd rather invest in more sustainable solutions. "More resources at campsites would be better," Tovo continued, "but the fact is hundreds of people have been camping for the past two years in spaces that have none of those things."

Moving In Many Directions

The motel strategy seemed to have more potential last year as COVID-19 shut down travel and hotel owners faced a precarious future, but sales prices for hotel properties in Austin have not declined as much as one might expect, since the industry expects a sizable rebound here in the nation's fastest growing large metro area. The city's unique specifications for these properties posed other challenges, as interim Real Estate Officer Michael Gates explained in a statement. "The challenge has been that the available number of hotels on the market at any one time is very small," Gates said.

Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey (Photo by John Anderson)

Plus, HSD is looking for extended stay suite hotels with 60-100 rooms, each with two sinks and a kitchenette, which provide both more comfort for the guests and a better chance of receiving competitive grant funding for operations. "Factoring in those requirements," Gates said, "and the pool of potential hotels that are candidates for our proposed use shrinks. You can go and buy any hotel you like, but the renovations we'd need to make afterward means it's not always the best use of time and money."

Renovations at what is now Southbridge cost around $1.6 million on top of its $6.3 million purchase price, which has made the city more strategic in looking for properties that are newer and in better condition. "It's widely known that we're interested in acquisitions," Gates said.

Setting goals and metrics for the performance of the city's homelessness response is important, but those who work most closely with unsheltered Austin­ites are quick to caution that these are people, not numbers. Reliable solutions have to account for people's agency to set their own goals and move along the continuum at their own pace. Their most immediate goals may not involve permanent housing, as is the case with Steven Potter. He left his ProLodge, on his own, in May; he was offered placement in a housing program, but he declined. "I've been down that road before," Potter told us. "I don't check all of the boxes to make it high on the list" – the "coordinated entry" assessment that helps providers prioritize who gets housing first – "so I didn't bother with it."

Instead, Potter chose to go back on the street, where he knows how to survive. He's not opposed to living in housing, but the places he can afford in Austin on his $15/hour wage are not great – "the kind of places with reviews that say, 'don't live here,'" as he describes it. Instead, Potter is using his income to rent office space where he can continue to create his art in peace.

"I got what I needed from the ProLodge," Potter said, reflecting on his stay. "It gave me the stability and the amount of sleep and security I needed to get a job and maintain that job. But I'm a creative. I process life through my art. It's a priority for me, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get my finances in order in a way that allowed me to pursue that priority."

The Housing Continuum

Infographic by Mike Clark-Madison and Zeke Barbaro / Photo by John Anderson

People in cities who need stable housing exist on a continuum, ranging from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate rental and ownership. The goal of homelessness response is to move people along the continuum, as far as they can go, at their own pace, and keep them from falling back.

Moving into a "congregate" temporary or emergency group shelter, like the one Downtown operated by the Salvation Army is a first step along the continuum. The next would ideally be a "non-congregate" bridge shelter, such as the city's new Southbridge or (for those with medical risks from COVID-19) the ProLodges, where people can have privacy to begin to recover from the trauma of life on the street, determine their life and housing goals, and engage with case management services to help them take another step.

That generally takes some form of short-term rental assistance, which is relatively abundant for what's called rapid rehousing, usually for about 16 months. RRH can serve people who abruptly lose their homes (such as to disaster or financial crisis, or as they escape family violence) as well as those gradually exiting long-term homelessness.

From there, many people can "self-stabilize." They get jobs and training, health care, and other support that allows them to move into subsidized housing that's reserved for people with below-median incomes; those subsidies can either come from public funds, or from private developers who comply with city affordability program requirements, usually in return for greater entitlements.

Others will not self-stabilize for a longer time, if ever; they have disabilities or chronic health conditions (physical, mental, or emotional), cannot afford even heavily subsidized housing, and are at continual risk of returning to homelessness. Those are the people who live in permanent supportive housing, usually in studio apartments that have case management and social services available for each resident, ideally on-site. Some may eventually move into independent living in income-restricted or even market-rate housing, like Austinites who have not experienced extreme poverty and trauma, or they may spend the rest of the lives in supportive housing programs.– Austin Sanders and Mike Clark-Madison

Editor's note: This story has been updated since publication to clarify an overly broad characterization of Matt Mollica's speculation as to why shelter bed use has declined nationally.

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