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Mayor Watson talks $65M to fight Austin homelessness, ‘Death Star’ litigation

Part of the mission of KXAN News is to foster a more informed and engaged community. We deliver in-depth coverage on topics like affordability, safety and mobility that affect the daily lives of Central Texans. And we explore sustainable solutions to economic, systemic and social problems. One way to achieve those goals is providing direct and consistent access to leaders who make decisions that shape local policy — seeking to understand their stances, holding them accountable for promises and asking tough questions when needed. This series of interviews with City of Austin Mayor Kirk Watson is designed with that in mind.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following his announcement of $65 million in state funding to combat homelessness, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson sat down with KXAN’s Daniel Marin on Friday to discuss how the money will be spent and how soon it could help those living on the streets.

The two also discussed the lawsuit filed against the State of Texas by the cities of Houston and San Antonio over HB 2127, the state’s new preemption law labeled the “Death Star bill” by opponents.

Below is a transcript of Marin and the mayor’s conversation, edited for clarity:

DANIEL: Thank you so much for joining us. So, $65 million from the state to fight homelessness. You said this could create as many as 700 shelter beds. The city needs about 1,000 right now. Where exactly is this money going? And how soon do you think we could see those 700 beds?

MAYOR WATSON: Well, first of all, this will make a big dent in a lot of our needs, and I’m very pleased that we were able to secure this funding. The $65 million, it breaks down kind of like this — just over $3 million goes into planning so we can do a good job of planning the non-congregant sheltering, that you’re asking about.

Then there’s a little over $56 million that will go into the ability to get that non-congregate shelter built after it’s planned. The money is given directly to nonprofits. And in this case, it is The Other Ones Foundation, also known as TOOF, here in Austin, which runs what we’ve referred to as Camp Esperanza, or Esperanza. Maybe all of that money doesn’t go into that direct site or an expansion of Esperanza, but it might also allow for another site somewhere else in Austin so that we meet the needs geographically, which is one of the things that we know we need to do.

Now, if you do the math on that, I haven’t gotten you to $65 million yet. There’s an additional $5 million dollars that will be split evenly. Two-and-a half million and two-and-a half million between Caritas and LifeWorks. That money is so that they can continue to do the good work that they’re doing with housing stabilization, things like rental assistance, or rapid rehousing so that people who get into a situation or are about to become homeless, they will have some stabilization money.

DANIEL: So if you could ballpark it, when do you think we could see those 700 beds?

MAYOR WATSON: Well, we got to do the planning first. And so we’ll start almost immediately on the planning. We know who we think will be the right people to help us get that done. And then we’ll start that process very quickly. My hope is that we’ll start seeing progress by the end of this year. And then the goal, as you say, of the 1,000 beds is 2025. But I don’t want to wait. We’re doing a lot already. And I’ll talk about that in a minute. But the truth of the matter is that where we are, we ought to be able to get some of this done, where you start seeing a difference by the end of this year. What I anticipate that will be a big part of this… will be what some people refer to as the tiny shelters, where it’ll be non-congregate, they won’t be one big place where people will be people will have a hard door. But they’ll have a tiny shelter. A lot of what you see already out at Esperanza.

DANIEL: The $65 million is currently more than what’s allocated for homelessness in the proposed city budget. So could the money from the city be instead used for maybe permanent supportive housing?

MAYOR WATSON: Well, a lot of that, a couple of things about that. There’s a lot of money that has been put into permanent supportive housing over the past couple of years. In fact, the focus has been primarily on permanent supportive housing. And so you’ve, you’ve seen a bunch of that happening. And we’re continuing to do that we’re not taking our eye off that ball. But what I have been saying is that what we need to do is we need to not focus just on one part of the continuum, we need to focus on the entire continuum, prevention dollars, Rapid rehousing dollars, shelter dollars. For example, we have on any given night in Austin, Texas, there’s only one bed for five people. So one in five people have a place to go and we know that people use these shelters, because, in 2022, we had just under 3,000 people using the shelters. And the good news is that when we provide the services, which we will do with this, with the expansion of Esperanza, we provide the services to over 50% of the people that leave the shelters, on average, they were there for about 115 days, but over 50% that leave the shelters, they end up in confirmed housing, so we help them come out of homelessness. So while permanent supportive housing is a key component along the continuum, we can get people into housing and make a difference in their lives.

DANIEL: So the money that’s allocated in the budget. Do you see you all moving that around a little bit, or did you all anticipate the 65 million?

MAYOR WATSON: Well, I was working real hard. You know, I’ve been working on this. Even before I was mayor. My first contact with the governor’s office in TDHCA occurred even before I was mayor because I was interested in trying to make a difference. And then we really accelerated at once I won the election and became mayor. And had the legislative session not been there, I think we would have been able to announce this even earlier. But that being the case, we have a need for all of the money that’s in the budget. And part of that money, just so that you’ll know, actually focuses on getting us to that goal of 1,000 shelter beds. So in the past couple of weeks, the city council has voted to create a congregant shelter facility at the marshaling yard, which is a facility that’s owned by the City of Austin, that will be around 300 beds as a temporary, that’ll end up being a temporary shelter. And then, as you know, the Salvation Army wanted to close the downtown shelter that it was running. So we have as the city, we have leased that building, and we have someone that’s going to be running that temporary shelter as well. It’s a one-year lease, and that’ll create about 150 beds. So a lot of the budgeting is always part of the overall plan. And now we have this inflow of additional money. It’s not like we had enough in the budget, we needed some additional money. And this will be a big help.

DANIEL: When did you all get word that, yes, the $65 million was happening?

MAYOR WATSON: You know, for a few weeks I’ve been working with the governor… for quite a while they work in the governor’s office. But for last few weeks, we knew that we would be in a position to post this on the agenda of the board of TDHCA. And we worked on it even we were working on it on Monday to make sure that it was posted and everything went well. And then of course you always wait to the vote. And we watched the vote yesterday. And I’m very appreciative.

DANIEL: Anything else you want to add on that topic?

MAYOR WATSON: One of the other reasons that it’s very important for us to have shelters like this is because the citizens, the voters of Austin, Texas told us they want us to enforce the camping ban, and the state of Texas passed legislation that was signed by the governor. So it’s the law of the land that we need to enforce the camping ban. It’s very difficult to enforce that camping ban effectively and humanely without having shelter capacity and having sufficient shelter capacity. So part of my goal is that as we build up this shelter capacity, we’ll be in a better position to do what we need to do in terms of enforcement of the camping ban, and do it effectively and humanely.

DANIEL: I want to get your thoughts on the cities of San Antonio and Houston filing suits against the state of Texas over HB 2127 known as the Deathstar bill by opponents. It keeps cities from creating rules that go past what state law allows. How do you feel about this litigation? And would you advocate for Austin joining it?

MAYOR WATSON: Well, so first of all, I opposed the preemption that what’s known as the super preemption bill, people, as you say, have called it the ‘Death Star’ bill. Because I believe that it steps in the way of cities being able to do things that it needs, the cities need to do in order to meet the needs of their citizens. And, of course, I also am a firm believer that the cities are doing a good job. If you look at the growth of the state of Texas, the people that want to be here, the economy of the state of Texas, the cities are doing very well in that regard. So that bill, I’m pleased to see that people were that cities are challenging that bill. We, as the city of Austin, we’re monitoring that and I anticipate that we will file an amicus brief at the appropriate time, and we will defend any cases where somebody challenges our ability as a city to do the things that this bill, ostensibly premiums.

DANIEL: And for our viewers out there, what is an amicus brief?

MAYOR WATSON: Oh, yeah, but yeah, I just showed you I have my law degree, didn’t I? An amicus brief refers to a friend of the court brief. And so what will happen is we will participate by letting the courts know our position and arguing any of the points that might need to be argued in that.

DANIEL: But at this point, no plans on joining the lawsuit?

MAYOR WATSON: No, not right now. The suit will be filed here in Travis County. The joint will be in Travis County. If San Antonio is allowed to join that and we’ll monitor that will be helpful. We need to be helpful, and we will defend any claims that others make against the city saying you can’t do that.

DANIEL: On the same topic. In the past at times, the City of Austin has had a somewhat contentious relationship with the governor’s office As the members of the legislature, what’s been your approach?

MAYOR WATSON: You know, I’ve tried to build on the strong relationships and success I had as a state senator. And I think we’ve been successful in that regard. If you look at the legislation that was particularly targeted at Austin during the legislative session, we had real success in that regard. There were some bills that apply to all cities like the major preemption bill that we were just talking about. And then if you look at things like what we just did with regard to the homeless, working directly with the state, I’ve been working with them for quite a while on this, that has resulted in very good results because of those relationships. I’m a firm believer that the capital city does not need to be at war with the capital. And that ought to be something that we focus on. We are unique as Austin because we are the state capitol. We may have significant disagreement from a policy perspective, but there’s no need to create unnecessary enemies.

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