Arlington Life Shelter planning for a new facility

ARLINGTON -- Costly maintenance issues and cramped quarters caused by a tough economy have the Arlington Life Shelter considering a larger location after 21 years downtown.

The nonprofit hopes to put $350,000 into a reserve fund within three years for daily operations at a new shelter before starting a campaign to raise the estimated $4.5 million needed for a new facility, said Becky Orander, the shelter's executive director.

Over the past couple of years, the shelter at 325 W. Division St., which takes in and feeds an average of 100 people a night, has grappled with high maintenance bills as well as overcrowding caused by an economy that has made it tough for clients to get back on their feet.

"We know we need to move. We are putting so much money in the building. We need more space to be able to provide more of the services they need and let people stay a little bit longer," said Orander, adding that 90 percent of the shelter's clients work but that half are underemployed.

"Our program used to be a six-week program, then it was a nine-week program and now it's a 12-week program," she said.

'Alive and well'

A location for a new shelter has not been identified, nor has the agency determined whether it will try to remain downtown, Orander said. Rumors of the agency's imminent closure are not true, she said.

"We're alive and well. Our house is full," said Orander, who said she has been contacted by several residents recently who had heard that the shelter planned to close. The shelter plans several events this year to celebrate its 25th year in Arlington, she said.

The shelter has also begun working with a fundraising coordinator to come up with strategies to strengthen community support, she said.

The shelter's annual $1.9 million operating budget is funded largely by donors, with about 26 percent from government sources. When Orander started working for the shelter 15 years ago, she said, government provided 78 percent of the budget.

Many underemployed

The shelter houses the homeless for up to three nights and requires those who need to stay longer to enroll in a structured 12-week program designed to help them obtain job skills to get back on their feet. It costs the shelter about $1,300 to get one person through the program, said Scott Reading, the shelter's board president.

Because of the economic downturn, the shelter is seeing clients "with higher education than we've ever seen before," Reading said.

"You see people [who] four or five years ago ... had good-paying jobs and could afford houses and cars, and now they are looking at trying to get a management job at a fast food restaurant or taking a huge pay cut," Reading said. "It's hard to get those individuals placed in a job where they are making what they were making before."

According to shelter estimates, people need to earn at least $14 an hour to afford an apartment on their own in Arlington.

About six months ago, the shelter started a reserve fund to cover operating expenses at a new shelter. But it can be difficult to save for the future when the shelter also worries about meeting day-to-day needs within its aging building, she said.

The building, constructed in 1967, is appraised at $219,650, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District. Recent maintenance costs included roof repairs and air-conditioning units.

"We want to make sure when we move that we are in a position where we can continue and continue strong and not just have a pretty new building," Orander said.

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Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578