By Rev. Tim Anderson, Director of Community Development for ACL—September 2021
Since 2011, Austin City Lutheran members have done “more, better, together.” Bread For All Food Pantry (BFA), established in 2013, and Mariposa Family Learning Center (MFLC), established in 2019, are testaments to the cooperative and effective work that ACL does—in the spirit of Christian compassion—to combat the adverse effects of poverty for low-income neighbors and families in Austin. These ministries are ongoing and will continue to be fully supported by ACL.
ACL’s leadership senses that now is the opportune time for the organization to consider next steps to create another ministry in the same spirit of BFA and MFLC.
This report will provide current context to the problem of homelessness in and around Austin and efforts to combat it, a status update on ACL congregations currently involved in homelessness ministries, a brief review of the many Austin organizations that address homelessness, and potential avenues for ACL to pursue to combat homelessness. A suggested reading and website listing is included at the end of this report.
While Austin’s population has increased more than 20 percent in the last decade, its homeless population has only increased by 6 percent. Austin’s been doing an above-average job fighting homelessness, but because of Covid and other recent events and trends (detailed below) homelessness in Austin has reached crisis status.
There are 2,500–3,000 people experiencing homelessness in Austin, the majority of these “unsheltered.” Many of us have seen homeless neighbors camped under freeway bridges or on wide medians throughout the city. Whereas homeless encampments were once exclusively in downtown spaces or urban zones within city limits, they now reach beyond Austin city limits in some cases. With the passage of Proposition B, unhoused neighbors are now being forced to camp in out-of-the-way locales that further isolate and distance them from access to services. As followers of Christ who understand that all human beings are created in the image of God, a return to out-of-sight camping is in many ways just as unhealthy and dangerous as were the encampments of unhoused persons under freeway bridges.
While unsheltered homelessness—people living in tents under bridges or in open areas—has been the most visible form of homelessness in Austin, there are specific categories of homelessness. Chronic and literal homelessness refers to those homeless for longer than one year while lacking a permanent address; episodic homelessness refers to those persons on-and-off homeless, at least three times in a calendar year; transitional homelessness refers to short-term homelessness caused by a crisis or event. This latter category includes those who might be living with a friend or family member because they have nowhere else to shelter. Additionally, there are those who are at imminent risk of losing their current residence, lacking options for new or different housing, some of these—women with children—who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence. Many who are chronically homeless suffer long-term health problems, such as mental illness or substance abuse disorder, and/or have disabilities. Lack of access to healthcare exacerbates their conditions.
Many people assume that homeless folks arrive to southern cities, like Austin, because of warmer temperatures. ECHO, the City of Austin’s lead coalition to combat homelessness, determined in 2020 that 83 percent of homeless persons in Austin are Austinites or Texans, nullifying the theory that homelessness is a “destination” issue. More so, detailed below, levels of homelessness in a city most closely correlate with that city’s levels of economic inequality.
Proposition B—“creating criminal offense and a penalty” for camping, lying down, and sitting in non-designated areas—was passed by Austin residents on May 1. This result in no way solves the homelessness issue in our city. There is much to be done by city and county leaders and designated organizations, in partnership with citizens, non-profits, private sector entities, foundations, volunteer organizations, and members of religious institutions (like Austin City Lutherans) to make homelessness “rare, brief, and non-recurring.”
City of Austin and Travis County leaders, in February and March of this year, held summit meetings under the heading of “Address Unsheltered Homelessness.” Consultants with years of experience working throughout the country on homelessness as a social issue met with a wide range of Austin and Travis County leaders to present information and formulate a community-wide action plan.
* Homelessness increases proportionally with rising rental prices, a harbinger of inequality.
* 2020 marked a ten-year high in Austin homelessness. o Average rent in Austin (2019) was more than $1500/mo., with an increasing number of people paying more than 50 percent of income on rent and utilities.
* Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle and San Francisco—like Austin—have high rent prices and elevated levels of inequality. It’s best to think of these cities not as “destinations” for homeless persons, but as having conditions that exacerbate homelessness.
Needs / Action Points
* Temporary shelter and permanent low-income housing need to be scaled up significantly—Austin has a shortage of both—spread out geographically throughout the city and county.
* A governance model for overall strategy needs to be established. To this point, Austin’s strategy to combat homelessness, according to some critics, needs to be better defined and delineated.
* Commit to housing 3,000 unsheltered neighbors in the next three years.
The estimated price tag from this plan to house 3,000 people in a three-year stretch (started in June 2021) and to simultaneously upgrade a system that can maintain homelessness—into the future, well beyond the next three years—as “rare, brief, and non-recurring” for affected individuals and families is $515 million. It is assumed that both the city and the county will share the cost of such an endeavor, along with philanthropists, private business interests, and funding foundations. Austin’s “Strategic Housing Blueprint,” adopted by city council in 2017 to create 60,000 affordable housing units in ten years, has been updated to reflect the above findings and needs from the summit meetings.
At the same time that the above summit meetings were being held, Austin City Council approved its own plan called HEAL—Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) Initiative. According to a COA website, the HEAL Initiative is “designed to immediately connect individuals living in designated encampments to housing or housing-focused shelter and supportive services. The intention of the HEAL Initiative is to create strategies that lead to the end of unsheltered homelessness through a collaborative approach to encampment outreach and re-housing.”
Dianna Grey is COA’s Homeless Strategy Officer who is tasked with consolidating and coordinating the HEAL initiative, the summit meeting recommendations, and other strategies to reduce homelessness in Austin. Her current staff consists of only four persons but will be augmented with seven new staffers as of September 1 (COA’s new budget year). Half of these new hires will be community engagement specialists, who will work with Austin residents and organizations to help implement the directives of Ms. Grey’s office, the Homeless Services Division. This office is part of Austin Public Health; Ms. Grey reports directly to an assistant city manager, Stephanie Hayden-Howard, who supervises APH and other health and cultural entities.
After the passage of Prop B, the city was tasked to find “temporary shelter solutions” for upwards of 1,500 unsheltered individuals. In mid-May, the city announced that 45 city-owned properties were in consideration as temporary shelter sites. Within weeks, almost all of these properties were disqualified for various reasons, whether being on city parkland or too close to schools. Toward the end of July, the city proposed two new properties as possibilities. Councilmembers Natasha Harper-Madison and Paige Ellis, in whose districts the two properties sit, voiced their opposition, effectively killing the proposal (all other eight councilmembers and Mayor Adler would have to vote to “Yes” to approve the proposal). Dianna Grey also commented that the preparation of these sites would take at least six months—construction, with major plumbing and electrical upgrades—a significant drain on her staff’s limited resources, in support of a controversial proposal.
The previous paragraph, a microcosm of the larger problem, reveals the layers of difficulties involved in combating homelessness, a deeply complicated social issue.
The challenge: How to make homelessness “Rare, Brief, and Non-Recurring.”
Goal promoted by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness and countless advocates and organizations combating homelessness throughout the country.
Doing nothing, however, only helps to worsen the status quo. There are city leaders, and many others in Austin and Travis County, who are committed to tackling this issue.
The city already has $220 million “committed or anticipated” for the summit plan’s overall price tag of $515 million. Funding from the American Rescue Plan—to support and scale up the above programs and initiatives, and to incentivize property owners and builders to construct more temporary shelter space and permanent low-income housing units—could bring in additional chunks of $100 million each from the city (already promised) and county. Business partners, philanthropists, and foundations are expected to fill in the remaining $100 million gap.
According to Austin Mayor Steve Adler: “This could be a historical moment for the city, assuming that we get the partners we’re going to need in order to be able to tackle challenges that are bigger than what the city can do by itself, or the county can do by itself, or any of the service organizations can do by themselves. It’s going to take us all working together and pitching in.”
There is much to be done and Austin has a long way to go to get a handle on its burgeoning problem of homelessness. Whereas Houston has reduced its homeless population by more than 50 percent in the last ten years, neither Austin, San Antonio, nor Dallas has had similar success in reducing the number of homeless residents in their cities. (Information on Houston’s successes are briefly described later in this report and are accessible in the Suggested Reading and Website Listings section.)
The dozen or so ELCA congregations that comprise Austin City Lutherans certainly cannot, on our own, solve the homelessness crisis in Austin. But working with each other, and with supporters, partners, and allies, ACL can find ways in which to serve that will help mitigate the crisis and its devastating effects for those experiencing homelessness.
As Lutheran Christians, we’re familiar with the biblical stories that compel us to respond to neighbors in need: the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) are primary examples. And to paraphrase Martin Luther: God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbors certainly do.
Now is a “kairos” moment (Mark 1:15) for the people of this city and area to work together to change the status quo of homelessness in Austin.
Status Update on ACL Congregations
Austin City Lutherans consists of the dozen or so ELCA congregations in and around Austin. I’ve made contact with these congregations to inquire specifically about their involvement—indirectly and directly—with persons experiencing homelessness.
All of our congregations have interactions with unhoused persons. Churches are places of sanctuary—havens or safe places—destinations where the unhoused have received food, shelter, clothing, bus passes, cash, and other necessities over the years. Unhoused persons have worshipped in our churches and prayed with us. At the same time, church employees and volunteers who interact with unhoused persons on our campuses express the truth that the necessities we’ve given out—in the spirit of charity—don’t do much to mitigate the problems and situations that bring unhoused persons to our church doors asking for assistance in the first place. We all share a frustration that we’re not able to do more, and do more effectively.
Two of our congregations, Gethsemane and Peace, are actively involved with providing shelter for unhoused neighbors.
Gethsemane, near the northwest corner of I-35 and US183, owns two smaller homes directly across from its campus. The congregation has on occasion, over the decades, offered one or both of these units to people in need of housing. Some experiences have been successful—others have not. The congregation, because of its proximity to two freeways, has been a frequent destination for unhoused neighbors seeking financial assistance and other necessities.
Gethsemane serves neighbors, including unhoused ones, through its food pantry and clothes closet ministries every week.
Peace in North Austin has an unused building that was once used for childcare. The congregation continues to offer childcare but in a new building. Peace is partnering with HomeAid Austin and Foundation for the Homeless (two of many homeless mitigation entities mentioned below in Brief Review) to convert this unused building into temporary shelter units for people transitioning from the streets to permanent housing. This process is relatively new and a congregational Housing Task Force of five persons directs efforts. The congregation intends that an outside organization will run the day-to-day operations of the facility once it is ready for use.
Other ACL congregations interact with unhoused neighbors on daily and weekly bases due to having a downtown location or proximity to freeways. St. John’s/San Juan, located on a Ben White Freeway feeder road a mile and a half west of I-35, gives food to unhoused neighbors who inquire during office hours. Additionally, the congregation allows unhoused neighbors to wash off at an outside spigot, to charge phones at an outside outlet, and to use the church’s address (one unhoused neighbor has been permitted to do this) in order to receive SNAP benefits by US mail. They’ve also stocked a self-service cooler outside with to-go meals (it however has disappeared twice).
St. Martin’s, because of its downtown location on 15th Street between Rio Grande and Nueces Streets, has had long-running interactions with unhoused neighbors. During the February winter storm, the congregation opened its doors to temporarily shelter twenty unhoused persons for five days. The congregation utilized its kitchen, showers, gymnasium and support from twenty-five congregational members and outside volunteers to feed and host their guests.
The above effort was not brand new for St. Martin’s, as the congregation has a history of participating in a citywide partnership of churches that open their doors to unhoused neighbors during freezes.
Additionally, the congregation has a long-running team that volunteers on Sunday evenings doing truck runs with Mobile Loaves and Fishes (further described below). The congregation has also distributed brown paper-bag lunches to unhoused neighbors for many years.
Lutheran Campus Ministry at UT invites all students to “Tailgate Tuesday” cookouts for dinner during the school year. This past spring they served upwards of 150 students at these events, conducted outside of LuMin’s entrance door at 2100 San Antonio. Occasionally, unhoused neighbors will drop by. These are encouraged to go to the Micah 6 food pantry distributions—one block away at University Presbyterian—on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.
First English, located just north of UT’s campus at Whitis and W. 30th Street, is one of a dozen downtown churches that supports (financially and with volunteers) the aforementioned Micah 6 food pantry. The Micah 6 organization also offers a “Street Youth Drop-In Center” on Saturdays and Sundays. Meals, computer labs, clothing, toiletries and laundry facilities are provided.
Over the years, the congregation—like many others—has had unhoused neighbors spend nights on church property. Recently, the congregation has begun to rely upon COA’s HOST service rather than dialing 911 when encountering unhoused persons taking up “residence” on their property. (HOST teams are also detailed below.)
Ascension and Holy Cross, although separated geographically, both are surrounded by undeveloped land which, through the years, has been used as isolated camping spaces for unhoused neighbors. Ascension’s medical lending closet—crutches, wheelchairs, blood pressure kits—has served low-income individuals, including those who are homeless. Holy Cross has served as a site for a mobile health team, specifically targeting unhoused individuals.
Faith, located on one of Austin’s “church rows” on Woodrow Avenue, participated in a homeless-sheltering program where congregations gave temporary shelter and provisions to unhoused neighbors—Faith’s kitchen was used once a week to serve hot breakfast to 125 persons. Peace also participated in this program by providing overnight shelter to a family for a week at a time. This program has since been discontinued.
Eight of our ACL congregations—including Abiding Love, Shepherd of the Hills, Triumphant Love—actively support Bread For All Food Pantry, which distributes food weekly to low-income neighbors, a handful of these unhoused. Abiding Love also has its own food pantry—typically serving double the number that does BFA— which occasionally serves unhoused neighbors and those in danger of becoming homeless. Shepherd of the Hills supports and volunteers at Feed My People, a ministry providing hot breakfast to homeless individuals downtown at First United Methodist (more details on FUMC’s homeless ministries below). One of Shepherd’s men’s groups engaged in prisoner reentry work with a handful of newly released inmates, a population particularly vulnerable to homelessness.
All of our congregations have interactions with homeless persons, and a few of these congregations are engaged in direct ministries with homeless neighbors. Yet Austin’s homelessness problem continues apace and threatens to get worse. The frustration and helplessness about homelessness that many of us feel confounds us. We live in a society that boasts of its own agency—we were the first in flight, we split the atom, and we sent people to the moon. But we have a growing number of people living under bridges and in the woods in and around Austin. Yes, they’ve made mistakes that contributed to their circumstances. But more often than not, the safety net under them was smaller, more frayed, and weaker than the one that has supported each of us—we who have made mistakes as well—reading this document.
We are a people of faith and we believe in the God of action who calls us to love our neighbors. In the 21st century, in a (supposedly) dynamic city like Austin, “love of neighbor” certainly includes those neighbors who lack a modern, permanent structure to call home.
Could we do “more, better, together”—partaking in effective, proven, and partnered approaches to combat homelessness? Certainly so, and the time to do so is now.
Brief Review of Austin Orgs, Churches, and Leaders Combating Homelessness
ECHO—The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition is, according to the Annie’s List website, “an [Austin] alliance of over 50 governmental and non-profit groups working to transform the local response to homelessness.” Established in 2009, ECHO now has a staff of more than twenty-five and an annual operating budget of $3.75 million. ECHO serves as Austin’s “Continuum of Care” point of contact, the agency through which the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) determines annual program funding awards for Austin and Travis County. Matt Mollica currently serves as executive director, succeeding Ann Howard in 2019. ECHO directs Austin’s “Point in Time” (PIT) count to determine homeless populations each year, usually in January.
Every large city submits PIT numbers to HUD, which compiles and reports on the data to help determine where federal resources are most needed.
ECHO coordinates Austin and Travis County’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a “database used to record and track client-level information on the characteristics and service needs of people experiencing homelessness. An HMIS ties together homeless service providers within a community to help create a coordinated and effective housing and service delivery system” (from ECHO’s website). Agencies which sign up and pay for HMIS access are referred to by ECHO as “partner agencies.”
As do the majority of lead organizations across the country combating homelessness, ECHO advocates a “housing first” approach: prioritizing permanent housing as the primary step to help lift people out of the reality and mindset of homelessness.
In the spring of 2018, ECHO produced “Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness” a forty-seven-page document compiled under then-Executive Director Ann Howard. It was endorsed by Austin City Council in April 2018. Ann Howard is a long-time member of St. Martin’s and currently serves on the Travis County Commissioners’ Court. A lawyer with experience in criminal and juvenile law, Ms. Howard co-founded ECHO and served as its executive director from 2009–2019.
Homeless Strategy Officer—Dianna Grey is the City of Austin’s HSO, a newly created position from which Grey’s predecessor resigned one month into the job. Ms. Grey began her duties the first week of January 2021. As an arm of Austin Public Health, her office, the Homeless Services Division, according to the city’s press release, “coordinates the City’s homeless response activities among multiple departments to ensure a seamless approach and response.”
As does ECHO, the Homeless Services Division advocates a “housing first” strategy that includes the following sub-strategies: bridge shelters, the favored shelters to provide temporary housing as sheltering is done in non-congregate fashion in separate rooms, typically in converted hotels; and, ProLodges, Covid-era shelters, like bridge shelters, with individual rooms to protect (“Pro”) clients from contracting the virus or other infirmities. Group shelters, like Salvation Army, do not provide separate living quarters and are increasingly not favored neither by homeless persons nor advocates.
Two other strategies, subsets of housing first policy initiatives, employed by Ms. Grey and her office are Permanent Supportive Housing and Rapid Rehousing. PSH (from the National Alliance to End Homelessness website) is “an intervention that combines affordable housing assistance with voluntary support services to address the needs of chronically homeless people. The services are designed to build independent living and tenancy skills and connect people with community-based healthcare, treatment and employment services.” RRH (also from the NATEH website) “provides short-term rental assistance and services. The goals are to help people obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency, and stay housed. It is offered without preconditions (such as employment, income, absence of criminal record, or sobriety) and the resources and services provided are typically tailored to the needs of the person.”
APH—Austin Public Health, apart from Dianna Grey’s office, has six social workers on staff with some of these doing case management for homeless clients.
HACA & HATC—The Housing Authority of Austin and the Housing Authority of Travis County are an important partners to combat homelessness, as they provide affordable housing for low-income individuals and families.
Mobile Loaves and Fishes / Community First! Village—Alan Graham is a Roman Catholic who began to bring food-truck meals, clean socks and other necessities to homeless persons in Austin in 1998. The organization has since provided millions of meals through a large volunteer base and in 2015 opened Community First! Village, a tiny-home community in NE Austin, that houses more than 250 previously homeless individuals. A second phase of Community First! Village was announced earlier this year. Mr. Graham has co-written a book (listed below in Suggested Reading) which is an excellent resource to help readers understand the plight of homeless individuals.
Sunrise Navigation Center—The navigation center is a ministry of Sunrise Community Church, located just south of Ben White Freeway on Menchaca in South Austin. The congregation is part of the small Christian Reformed Church in North America and is pastored by Mark Hilbelink. Six years ago, the church took small steps to connect with homeless individuals camping nearby under the Ben White Freeway bridge. Pastor Mark along with a volunteer social worker offered guidance to homeless individuals attempting to navigate the network of organizations which assist persons wanting to leave the streets for a stable housing situation. Four years ago, outside donations for this work began to come in, and the reality of a larger scale navigation center took shape. Today, SNC serves hundreds of unhoused neighbors weekly with food and water, clothing, toiletries, mail service, electrical charging stations, medication assistance (for a select few), and access to professional and intern social workers who guide homeless neighbors in the navigation “pipeline” process to move off the streets to temporary shelter and eventually permanent housing. The first step in the process is for a person to fill out HUD’s housing needs survey called “Coordinated Assessment” which goes into Austin and Travis County’s HMIS database. SNC has helped guide more than 500 persons through the process to obtain permanent housing.
SNC shepherds Compass Network ATX by which church groups partner to bring social services to homeless encampments and/or clients in new housing situations. Partnering churches and organizations include Austin Disaster Relief Network, Mosaic Church, and Angel House. Austin Bridge Builders Alliance serves as a resource organization in support of Compass projects.
The Navigation Process
Starts with HUD’s Coordinated Assessment which is then inputted into ECHO’s HMIS . . .
Case Managers consider available shelter or housing options depending on a client’s status and circumstances including gender, presence of substance use disorder, youth or elderly, veteran, individual or family, etc. and continue to work with clients through the entire process which can last from 6-18 months.
Wrap-Around Services and Supports – Food, clothing, job training, identification and social security card procurement and other services and supports constitute the Permanent Supportive Housing (PHS) strategy which is ongoing as clients establish themselves in new housing situations.
LINC—Standing for “Lutheran Intercity Network Coalition,” this effort is the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church’s ministry to combat homelessness in Austin. Led by wife and husband team, Haleh and Kevin Kersten, LINC is a mobile ministry that brings services—the Kerstens describe it as “triage,” the first steps toward healing and stability—to unhoused persons in the field. LINC ministries throughout the country typically provide worship in urban settings; the Austin expression is the only one not centered in worship, and the only one led by a female executive director. LINC-Austin has been in operation for nine years, is supported by the Texas district at about $300,000/ year, and utilizes an enthusiastic volunteer base to support its work. LINC’s website describes its ministry as “mobile outreach to individuals experiencing homelessness. Our mobile outreach team provides friendship, hope and mentorship along with much needed basic needs and case management.” LINC partners with APH, CommUnityCare, HOST and Travis County EMS at the mobile outreach events. LINC’s model possibly provides ACL with a template of how to engage directly in homelessness ministry at the very beginning of the navigation process.
The Other Ones Foundation—From their website, TOOF “is a nonprofit that offers extremely low-barrier work opportunities, case management, and humanitarian aid to people experiencing homelessness.” The organization was established in 2017. They stepped in recently to provide services at Camp Esperanza on US183, appointed by Governor Abbott to be a temporary shelter for homeless individuals in November 2019. They sponsor two programs to serve and assist unhoused neighbors. Workforce First, in partnership with the City of Austin, employs homeless persons to clean up abandoned encampments and city parks. TOOF provides transportation, lunch, gloves and work tools, and cash pay at $15/hour for laborers. A second project, a mobile hygiene clinic, brings shower facilities, sack lunches and toiletries to homeless persons at encampments.
First United Methodist Church—Located directly west of the capitol, FUMC hosts Feed My People breakfasts (a program of Foundation for the Homeless), has volunteer teams that run Mobile Loaves and Fishes trucks, participates in the city-coordinated “Church Freeze Night Shelter,” and opens its doors to homeless neighbors weekly for showers, computer and library access, and food.
Trinity Center—A non-profit ministry supported by St. David’s Episcopal at E. 7th and Trinity Streets, offering services including breakfast and lunch, mail boxes, hygiene bags, clothes closet, rent and utility bill assistance, and case management.
Austin Homelessness Advisory Council—AHAC, a group of approximately fifteen individuals with lived experience of homelessness in Austin, provides input to city entities and personnel on outreach and service programs targeting individuals experiencing homelessness. Many other organizations offer services to persons experiencing homelessness, assist in the navigation process, or work to maintain options for persons at-risk of losing their housing.
Public agencies include: Austin Travis Integral Care, providing counseling and mental healthcare to low-income and homeless individuals; the aforementioned HOST, consisting of two police officers, two behavioral health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker who collaborate as a team to meet the needs of homeless individuals as a way to avert arrests and crises situations; SOAR, (SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery) a national program designed to increase access to the disability income benefit programs administered by the Social Security Administration for eligible adults and children who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness and have a serious mental illness, medical impairment, and/or a co-occurring substance use disorder; Downtown Austin Community Court, is a problem solving and rehabilitative court, utilizing swift and creative sentencing for public offenders, the majority of these homeless individuals; and, CommUnityCare, providing limited medical care to homeless populations.
Caritas of Austin is the historic non-profit leader to combat homelessness and its effects in Austin. Established by Monsignor Richard McCabe in 1964, Caritas provides shelter, case management, and access to services to assist people out of homelessness and keep those at-risk of losing housing in their dwellings. While there are some 3,000 homeless individuals in Austin, Caritas estimates that currently 10,000 people in Austin access “homeless services” on a yearly basis.
Front Steps offers case management and provides shelter at the ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless). The ARCH, located downtown at 7th and Neches Streets, is a COA-owned three-story building that has served as the main homeless shelter in Austin for the past twenty years. The first story has a clinic and services for clientele; the second story has a large commercial kitchen and dining area; the third story has 100 shelter beds. Upwards of 4,000 people utilize the services provided by the ARCH in a year’s time.
Other non-profits include: Foundation for the Homeless, providing homeless families with RRH programming; HomeAid Austin, (working with Peace) engaged in building projects from emergency shelters and transitional housing to permanent/supportive housing; Casa Marianella offers shelter and services to displaced immigrants, many of these homeless; and, Green Doors, maintaining more than 300 residents—veterans, disabled, and single-parent families—housed on the non-profit’s own properties and through a rental assistance voucher program.
Other organizations include AmeriCorps, Any Baby Can, Austin Youth Collective, Family Eldercare, Habitat for Humanity, Lifeworks, SAFE Alliance, Saint Louise House, Salvation Army, and YWCA, among others.
Potential Avenues for ACL to Pursue
American life expectancy as of 2021 is 77.3 years. People living on the streets, generally, have a life expectancy of 50 years. In 2020, 580,466 Americans were homeless (using the broader definition on this report’s first page), an increase of 2.2 percent over the previous year (during the same time, US population increased by 0.6 percent).
Demographically, Austin’s homeless population disproportionally consists of Browns and Blacks. It’s also overrepresented, compared to overall Travis County population, in the 45–64 age group.
Ann Howard, Travis County Commissioner for Precinct 3, was ACL’s special guest at its June 2021 Summit Meeting, and presented on the homelessness crisis and what faith communities can do to help combat it. Ms. Howard encourages faith communities, like ACL, to 1) be advocates in favor of housing first solutions for homeless neighbors, to 2) support existing programs that help mitigate homelessness, and to 3) consider—as have Peace and Gethsemane—ways to use church property to help house the homeless.
Ann especially encourages ACL supporters to take on the “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) attitude that seems to be homeowners’ default response when a type of solution—creation of temporary shelter, purchase of a hotel—is proposed for their own neighborhood. Ann, conversely, encourages the use of the faith community’s counter-proposal—“Yes, in God’s Backyard” (YIGBY).
As Christians who believe that God is creator of all that exists, it’s time for us to advocate for housing solutions— in “God’s backyard”—in all parts of the city.
“It’s time to be bold,” Ann Howard says, “and confident that we can make a difference.”
Houston has been bold, and a broad partnership has made a huge difference in reducing the city’s homeless population by more than 50 percent in the last decade.
How has Houston done this? The city had an all-time high homeless population of 8538 in 2011 when they implemented a community-wide action plan called “The Way Home.” Their website (listed below) advocates the best way to end homelessness as starting with a “housing first” commitment to permanent housing, combined with supportive services. They claim to have more than 100 partners (in comparison ECHO claims 50) who have helped the city-wide region house more than 23,000 individuals in the last decade.
Houston, according to the Texas Tribune, was quick to utilize the HMIS database, which helped to coordinate efforts between the various partner agencies. This was a stark change from the context of twenty years ago, when various organizations worked in “silo” fashion with little coordination.
In 2009, HUD designated the Houston region as a priority community for assistance, paving the way for Houston to receive larger HUD awards to help house its homeless population. These awards enabled Houston to commit to “housing first” solutions.
“This starts off with a simple dictate: The solution to homelessness is a home,” says Andy Icken, chief development officer for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Our focus was to create permanent supportive housing, so that we’re not continually cycling people in and out of shelters, temporary or more permanent shelters.”
Change can happen with attention to best practices, funding, cooperation, faith, and commitment.
Bread For All Food Pantry is a necessary and needed charity ministry. Mariposa FLC is a ministry that provides the opportunity of transformation for two generations of a family. In similar fashion, an ACL ministry focused on homelessness not only has the possibility of bringing transformation to persons and families, but also positive change to our society through the shared work of advocacy. The new book, Faith-Based Organizing, (recommended below) challenges churches to move from their traditional wheelhouse of charity ministries to advocacy ministries—face-to-face relational ministry where listening, learning, and a spirit of accompaniment bring people to advocate for significant systemic changes leading to improved wellbeing for all.
Options for ACL to consider include:
1. Be advocates for a unified approach based in “housing first” solutions to help mitigate homelessness and its effects. Be those followers of Christ who think twice before reflexively joining in the NIMBY chorus. As long as NIMBY persists, nothing will change for the better as concerns this grave social problem.
2. Serve as “support groups” to help unhoused neighbors crossing the long bridge from unsheltered homelessness to stable living. Through the social ministries and resources of our congregations, we have ample access to food, clothing, furniture and other necessities, including childcare.
3. Provide navigation services to take larger steps on the ground floor to fight homelessness. We could partner with LINC or Sunrise or use their navigation models as templates for our own work.
4. Use our properties, like Gethsemane and Peace are doing, to provide greatly needed transitional shelter or permanent housing. We have plenty of property, some of it not being used, in which to partner with experienced organizations in this effort.
There are wise mentors and faithful co-workers in this field—Ann Howard, Mark Hilbelink, Haleh and Kevin Kersten, among others—who can provide more information and guidance as ACL considers the good options to do “more, better, together” in Austin’s fight against homelessness.
Suggested Reading and Website List
Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody, 2014).
Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown, 2016). Desmond is a sociologist who teaches at Princeton. He spent the better part of two years doing research in Milwaukee which included living in a dilapidated trailer park and a rooming house on the second floor of a duplex in Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American North Side neighborhood. He follows eight families and details their economic struggles during the 2008–09 recession.
Fredrickson, Lien, Palmer, and Walther; Faith-Based Organizing: A Congregational Planning Resource for Addressing Poverty (Fortress, 2021).
Graham and Hall, Welcome Homeless: One Man’s Journey of Discovering the Meaning of Home (Thomas Nelson, 2017). Alan Graham tells the story of Mobile Loaves and Fishes in Austin. I highly recommend this book if you’ve ever wondered how someone ends up on a street corner in Austin panhandling for money. Alan tells how it happened for ten people.
Khadduri and Shinn, In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and What To Do About It (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020).
Walsh and Bouma-Prediger, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Eerdmanns, 2008).
ECHO—A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and the lead agency that plans and implements community-wide strategies to end homelessness in Austin and Travis County, http://www.austinecho.org/about-echo/homelessness-in-austin/. From the website’s menu, choose “About” and then “Homelessness in Austin” from the dropdown bar for pertinent data.
Texas Tribune article on Houston: https://www.texastribune.org/2019/07/02/why-homelessness-going-down-houston-dallas/
The Way Home—Houston: https://thewayhomehouston.org/ TOOF—https://toofound.org/