Salvation Army Homeless Shelter to Reopen Temporarily, but Will It Be Enough?

Sally saved (for now)

The Salvation Army Downtown homeless shelter in February (photo by John Anderson)

Four months after the Salvation Army of Austin abruptly announced plans to close their Downtown homeless shelter – the only one in the city that historically has provided beds to women – City Council approved $5.8 million in contracts that will allow the facility to remain open for one year.

The city will temporarily lease the building, which is in disrepair and unlikely to remain a shelter for unhoused individuals in the long term, for $1.3 million. Urban Alchemy, which took over operations of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless – Down­town's other large emergency shelter – in October, was also awarded a $4.6 million contract to operate the Salvation Army facility. The funding will primarily come from federal dollars allocated to Austin through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Keeping the shelter open for another year will be helpful to the several thousand individuals living without shelter in Austin, who must compete for the estimated 926 beds currently available throughout the city. Accord­ing to the 2023 Point in Time Count conducted by the Ending Community Home­­less­ness Coalition, that number is roughly 2,400, though the database ECHO maintains of people accessing homelessness services puts the number at 4,600 and is likely a more accurate estimate of unhoused and unsheltered individuals.

Advocates for the unhoused acknowledge this solution is only temporary. And they say that the short-term plans may be coming too late for people who were staying at the shelter, known as the Sally, but left after closure plans were announced. "It's a little bit unfortunate that everybody had to be kicked out of the Sally before anything was done," JJ Ramir­ez, an organizer with the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, told Council before their vote June 8. In March, the city reported that about 77 individuals staying at the shelter had been relocated, 51 of them to a different shelter or housing program; 11 left for an unknown destination. Outreach workers may be able to notify people who left that the shelter will reopen, but whether or not they'll want to move back into a facility that may only be open another year is a different question.

Under Urban Alchemy, the Sally will offer 150 emergency shelter beds, including some dedicated for use by women or people identifying as other genders (the 2023 PIT Count found that 37% of people surveyed identified as female, transgender, or nonbinary). Kirkpatrick Tyler, UA's chief of community and government affairs, told the Chronicle that his team will conduct a full walkthrough of the site in the next few weeks and then work on detailed plans for how UA can "reimagine" the space.

"Nothing is set in stone," he said, "but we really try to use as much of the space as possible for residents and not for administrative use." That could include repurposing offices and conference rooms for resident use, and possibly using one of the two adjacent parking lots the Salvation Army also owns for an outdoor gathering space. Tyler also said it would be important for UA, the city, and service providers to collaborate on long-term plans for the site over the one-year lease, so that the community can be prepared for whatever comes next once the short-term solution comes to an end.

What kind of services will be offered to people staying at the Sally or the new, 300-bed emergency shelter the city intends to stand up for one year in a warehouse at the city-owned Marshalling Yard in Southeast Austin remains a concern for advocates as well. "We need to recognize that this shelter system can't just be a warehouse with dormitory-style buildings," Ramirez continued. "It's good that this is being passed, but it seems like a temporary Band-Aid ... We need comprehensive plans."

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