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Homeless Shelters Encounter Hard Times

ARCHThanks to Andrea Ball, who writes for The Austin American-Statesman, the public is very well informed about homeless issues in the Texas capital. Case in point: her meticulous description of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) at a crucial juncture of its existence, which includes a concise history to put it in context.

Every day, approximately 800 humans throng the ARCH. A large number of people sleep here, with more stopping by to wash clothes or take a shower. Offices are here too, for the administration of services. House the Homeless is one of several agencies located within the ARCH.

Although, in 2005, the American Institute of Architects named the building one of the year’s Top Ten Green Projects, it was never designed for so much traffic or such heavy use. It all adds up to a lot of wear and tear on the physical plant. The building is only seven years old, and parts of it are described as “decaying.”

Ball cites a partial list of infrastructural deficiencies:

Moldy bathrooms, broken showers, a peeling roof, and solar power and water reclamation systems that worked intermittently… About 300 people a day shower at the facility, more than double what was anticipated. That relentless humidity was a big factor in problems with the bathroom, which is expected to cost $250,000 to fix…

Apparently, the showers are built over a parking area, so if the floor collapses, a bunch of folks will be calling for a ride home. To make matters worse, the contractor seems to have cut some corners. And who knew that a building would only come with a one-year warranty?

Ball explains that the shelter was build for 100 beds, which brought its capacity up to only 27 more than the old shelter it has replaced. She quotes Richard R. Troxell, founder of House the Homeless:

It was insane. We spent $8 million, and we did nothing to increase the capacity.

The reasons why the ARCH stands where it does are found in Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, where he tells the complete story of that challenging episode from personal experience, having been chair of the Land Search Committee.

Currently, the financial situation is bleak, and at the same time the need is greater than ever. Ball says,

The maintenance staff has increased from four people in 2006 to eight in 2011. During that time, the shelter started sleeping 215 men a night instead of the 100 for which the building was designed. Its day center also started providing services seven days a week instead of the five originally planned.

That last item shows a degree of enlightenment that people have come to expect from Austin, which is, after all, a pretty cool place. In any sane world, services are available seven days a week. If there is enough need for something that an institution has been created to provide it as a service, then it’s reasonable to assume that the need would be there every day, not just on the ones designated “weekdays” by the calendar.

Of course, shelters everywhere are in dire straits. In Lawrence, Kansas, the Community Shelter doesn’t even have enough plastic storage bins to allot one per family, to keep their possessions in. Shaun Hittle’s story conveys the details of daily life in an environment where the children of several families rise from the floor mats where they sleep and get ready for school at the same time. It takes the logistical skills of a general, as the reporter learned from one resident:

Theresa Reeder, mother of six, says she’s become an expert in ushering her kids in and out of the three showers and two bathrooms they share with the other families… Reeder explains the process while she serves as coordinator of the morning rush. Five of the Reeder children, ages 9 to 12, are in school-preparation mode. It’s noisy, but the kids joke and play while grumpy parents try and get them dressed and ready to go.

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Source: “Homeless shelter repairs pile up,” Statesman.com, 09/13/11
Source: “‘It’s heartbreaking’: Families adjust to homeless life together at shelter,” LJWorld.com, 09/04/11
Image by Gideon Tsang, used under its Creative Commons license.