Austin’s homelessness czar resigned last week and the timing couldn’t be any worse for advocates of the city’s Housing First approach.
The next day, news broke of eye-popping accounts of multiple overdose deaths, prostitution, drug manufacturing, violence, and under-cooked meals at one of the city’s two “bridge shelters,” Northbridge, designed as a channel between the homeless camps and more permanent housing arrangements and treatment opportunities. The whistleblower was previously and allegedly fired after bringing attention to these matters.
And on top of that, a plan to raise Austin’s current-11% hotel occupancy tax to compensate for a years-long closing/renovation of its convention center and partially fund homeless services was shelved.
The city also postponed a contract extension for rehabbing an old hotel — the embattled Candlewood Suites, which the city hopes will become the crown jewel of its Permanent Supportive Housing offerings.
As the popular children’s book title goes, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for the homelessness-industrial complex in Texas’s capital city.
The day after Labor Day, the city pushed a press statement concerning the Aug. 16 dismissal of a lawsuit regarding the Candlewood between the city and Williamson County plus intervenors from the neighborhood. Two news stations ran a story based on the press statement as if it was breaking news and not weeks-old. But that wasn’t enough to conceal or camouflage the growing outrage of Austin’s failing approach to reducing homelessness within its famed city limits.
City Manager Jesus Garza said Homelessness Strategy Officer Dianna Grey‘s resignation had nothing to do with the aforementioned controversies. Garza said the city is “in the middle of doing a proper review” of the allegations, according to a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman.
The New York Post picked up on the crisis at Northbridge.
Former city employee Andrea Gipson recorded several videos inside the Northbridge homeless center throughout 2023 before she was placed on administrative leave on July 31 after complaining about the shelter’s conditions.
“Drug use, prostitution. There are assaults happening. There are folks being drugged and robbed right on site,” Gipson told KVUE.
Her revealing videos showed the shelter in disrepair, with trashed rooms, guns on windowsills, collections of used needles, drug paraphernalia, machetes and knives strewn about.
In addition, shelter residents have been accused of cooking drugs in their rooms, getting high, engaging in prostitution and overdosing inside the facility, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Gipson turned the info over to Austin City Council member Mackenzie Kelly, whose email to Garza regarding the situation was first picked up by local radio station KLBJ-AM. Subsequent media reports showed photo after photo of drug paraphernalia, guns, and disheveled rooms.
If it seems like a lot it is, and only compounded by the city’s troubles with crime. Just prior to last week’s dust-ups, Fox News gave a national spotlight to Rupal Chaudhari, whose family owns two hotels adjacent to the currently vacant Candlewood. The story, summarizing Austin’s crime uptick, made mention of the city’s long 9-1-1 hold times and Chaudhari’s inability to quickly reach police as thieves made off with porch furniture from one of her hotels.
“Nobody’s taking any responsibility…” Chaudhari, founder of neighborhood resistance group MOVE Candlewood, said in the Fox article. “I’ve seen this since 2020. The Progressive zealots on [the] Austin City Council, they pushed to defund the police and, we saw a crime wave go on. To make matters worse, they actually went ahead and cut millions of dollars from 911 staffing, and one of the zealots got a taste of their own medicine, I would say, when she was on hold for 28 minutes to speak to 911 call dispatcher.”
Chaudhari said she visited Northbridge on Wednesday morning, finding persons congregating on the sidewalk outside the fence of the shelter, temporary encampments behind bushes and trees, dog feces, and garbage. Shelter staff were on-site and helpful, she noted, and had a clear process for checking in new residents and storing their belongings in repurposed roll-off bins with combination locks. However no security was present at the doorway aside from cameras. Gipson said she encountered resistance for suggesting a metal detector wand be used for those entering the shelter, a repurposed Country Inn and Suites near Interstate Highway 35.
Chaudhari said she is concerned the scene at Northbridge will soon come to the Candlewood, which is expected to host around 80 full-time, permanent residents if and when it opens.
“We’re now into our third year of warning the public about this!” she said. “If we don’t act now to either move this shelter to a better location or radically change the scope of it, this is what my business neighbors and nearby homes with families can expect on Pecan Park Boulevard and all across once-tranquil northwest Austin.”
The city has spent an estimated $81 million to address its homelessness situation since its homelessness strategy office opened. There are approximately 5,000 homeless persons in the city, with thousands more in the metro area — up 74.5% in 2023. The city has allocated an estimated $15 million to renovating the Candlewood, which the city is currently calling “Pecan Gardens.”
Cover photo: Several people and a dog gather along the sidewalk outside Austin’s Northbridge shelter on Wednesday morning. (Courtesy: MOVE Candlewood)
Note: This writer assists with MOVE Candlewood but was not compensated for this story. This article originally appeared in The Travis Tracker.