Business coalition pitches new shelter as Abbott opens campground

Rain started moving into downtown Austin Thursday morning. For several members of the homeless and transient community, overpasses and tents kept them dry. An umbrella certainly would be handy on a day like this. A few blocks away, members of the Austin business community were offering something bigger.

"We will help them by providing a facility that will make shelter, storage, counseling and medical services and outreach available on an easy to access basis,” said Brian Cassidy with the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

To make that happen this coalition called ATX Helps wants to raise $14 million to build and operate a new temporary shelter. Construction could start by early 2020, but first about an acre of land in downtown is needed. 

"For us, downtown means within a reasonable distance, so to within maybe a half of mile of the central business district,” said Dewitt Peart with the Downtown Austin Alliance.

The shelter would be similar to what's in San Diego. Known as a Sprung, they have canvas sides, something like the military uses. Inside, they’re big enough for 150 bunk beds capable of sleeping 300 people. Austin has only about 800 shelter beds available for a community of more than 2,000 people according to a recent count.         

"We know 300 doesn't get us there, but we want to be able to make sure how we do this successfully, prove to the community that we can do it, clean and low barrier,” said Chris Turnley with Austin Bridge Builders Alliance.

The hard sell may be for those the shelter is to help, like Alana, who's living under an I-35 overpass.

"So, what do you do, for somebody like me? I like to have a beer now and then, nope, no housing, because you want two beers a day,” said Alana.

Alana did like hearing that rules will be kept to a minimum and storage will also be available.

"The bring your stuff is important, because what little we have, because we know its temporary, and we will be back out here, so they’re still warm. I’m not going to move all my stuff for one night in a shelter, that ain’t worth it,” said Alana. 
As the Chamber campaign gets underway, something is going to be needed to bridge the gap, and that’s where an old TxDOT facility comes into play. A work crew was cleaning up the five-acre site Thursday afternoon. Located near the northwest corner of US 183 and SH 71, the property is now a campground, according to John Whitman, a spokesperson for Governor Greg Abbott.

"This is a short term fix while we work on a long term solution,” said Whitman.

Portable restrooms and washing areas are ready. Security will be provided by DPS. The closest camps are currently located along Riverside. Moving to the TxDOT sit or using the new shelter when built will be up to those on the streets.

The governor has indicated the camp at the TxDOT site will stay open as long as it is needed.