Limited resources linked to prevalence of Southwest Austin homeless camps

Program enrollees at The Salvation Armyu2019s Adult Rehabilitation Center in Southwest Austin are given free shelter and counseling.

Program enrollees at The Salvation Armyu2019s Adult Rehabilitation Center in Southwest Austin are given free shelter and counseling.

Resources such as food, shelter or a shower are limited for people experiencing homelessness in Southwest Austin. As a result, homeless individuals are flocking to camps created on undeveloped land where they can sleep and live without being confronted by authorities, police say.


Joshua Visi, an Austin Police Department liaison who represents the portion of Southwest Austin between Hwy. 290 and Brodie Lane, said most homeless individuals choose to stray from the downtown area to avoid drugs and crime.


“A lot of [homeless people] live in camps because in the center of the city there is very little undeveloped land,” Visi said.  “Downtown there is also a lot of homeless-on-homeless crime and drug use, and they want to separate themselves from that. They prefer a tract of undeveloped land in Southwest Austin where they can be left alone.”


Visi said as the city grows and the number of homeless camps increases, so does the issue of property crime in Southwest Austin.


“Over the last few years developers have started to develop their lands for neighborhoods and commercial properties, and these [homeless] people are being forced out of their camps,” Visi said. “So what happens is as they’re moving through the neighborhoods they are engaging in property crime.”


Although the city issues citations for property crimes and other types of criminal offenses committed by the homeless population, such as for camping in a public place or soliciting in a public roadway, Visi said the city cannot arrest its way out of this issue. He said at this point, it is up to the city’s decision makers to improve the situation.


City takes on homelessness


According to a analysis published by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, on
Jan. 28, 832 unsheltered individuals were identified across Austin’s 10 City Council districts. Of that, 138 unsheltered individuals were found in Southwest Austin. 


Now, Mayor Steve Adler wants to charge tourists with housing the homeless.


“It’s a solution that makes tourists pay for our homeless challenge,” he said during a July 17 news conference.


The plan, which would yield millions of dollars annually, would involve paying for homeless initiatives using taxes from hotels and properties within the designated downtown district.


“We’ve been consistently calling for more money to build up the whole system of response to homelessness,” ECHO Executive Director Ann Howard said.


She said downtown Austin lacks the resources needed to quickly house people, which is the ultimate goal for ending homelessness.


“If we received money immediately, we would increase the connection between outreach and engagement and shelter and housing,” she said.


SW Austin resources


The Salvation Army offers an Adult Rehabilitation Center located at South Congress Avenue and Hwy. 290 for up to 120 homeless men. The program requires residents to work 40 hours per week in exchange for counseling services and shelter free of charge.


Jan Gunter, deputy development director for The Salvation Army, said the organization also has two other shelters in Austin—one for families and another for women and children only.


The adult rehabilitation center is funded through sales from each of the four Salvation Army stores throughout Austin and in Round Rock, she said. 


“We are one of the largest providers for families and women and children experiencing homelessness in Austin,” Gunter said.


A former client of The Salvation Army facility, Jameca Mitchell said the organization helped her get back on her feet. Mitchell was incarcerated for 12 years and has been in and out of jail for most of her life. With a criminal background, she said it is hard for her to find and keep a job and stable housing.


“I have little support since my mom passed away,” Mitchell said. “It’s basically just me, and I have [four] kids—one of which is a drug addict. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, so I came here and the treatment I got here was remarkable. They helped me with clothing and transportation so the kids could go back and forth to school. Everything I needed they supplied here.”


Mitchell is now living in stable housing as part of a one-year program offered by the Housing Authority of the City of Austin. The program ends in six months, and from there, Mitchell said she plans to move to a less expensive city such as Temple or Killeen and find a job using the commercial driver’s license, or CDL, she earned a few years ago.


“I want to use my CDL, maybe working for cement company trucks or something like that,” Mitchell said.


Homeless services in Southwest Austin are also available through the Sunrise Community Church Homeless Ministry on Manchaca Road and through the ReWork Project near South Congress Avenue and I-35.


Mark Hilbelink, a pastor with Sunrise Community Church, said his church offers meals, showers, case management, document storage services and a clothing-and-food exchange. The ministry also works with other organizations throughout the city and county to offer health care services and information as well as registration for housing and benefit-assistance programs.


“We try to do anything we can to help them move on to the next step and get them to a better lifestyle if that’s what they want,” Hilbelink said.


Mobile Loaves & Fishes also delivers meals to homeless people in Southwest Austin at various locations.


Thomas Aitchison, communications director for Mobile, Loaves & Fishes said the program is unique because they deliver food on the streets. The food truck is available 365 days a year, seven days a week.


“Mobile, Loaves & Fishes mobile food ministry use food as a conduit to connect with our homeless [community].”


Allison Eskew, director for ReWork Project, said her organization also tries to get people back on their feet by providing work therapy services. Eskew said the program aims to build confidence while also holding homeless individuals accountable through the dignity of work.


Clients who participate in the program learn to build wood products such as picnic tables. Once the product sells online, the client who built it keeps the revenue.


Eskew said ReWork believes by providing its clients with newfound life skills, confidence and work ethic, they can find more stable housing.


“There are great housing programs in Austin, but we see a lot of turnover because they don’t have confidence in themselves or can’t handle the change,” Eskew said. “We want to help them better prepare for that transition to a new lifestyle. Our goal is for them to leave here [and go] on to something better.”

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