‘The hidden homeless’: Nonprofits step up to help area residents in need

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In Round Rock and surrounding communities, homelessness and housing insecurity does not look the way it does in Austin, but it still exists, according to area nonprofits.

“There is a category that I would call ‘the hidden homeless’ because you’re not going to see them under any bridges or on street corners here in Round Rock, but they are here,” said Debbie Rippstein, president of the Texas Baptist Children’s Home.

At the Round Rock Area Serving Center off Main Street, area residents gather to collect vouchers for food from the food pantry or to shop for clothing in the center’s thrift store.

The volunteer-operated nonprofit offers not only access to food and clothing but also vouchers for utilities, rent and other necessary living expenses. Cynthia Flores, a case manager for the Round Rock Area Serving Center, said the center sees a monthly average of 1,100 families seeking food and financial assistance.

While many clients are working poor, some do not have a permanent residence. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.6 percent of Round Rock residents are living below the poverty line.

“Homelessness looks different in Austin than it does in our communities,” Flores said. “What we forget is the majority of people in our area have a different definition of homelessness.”

In downtown Austin people line up outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless for a place to stay the night. In Williamson County, though, there is no conventional homeless shelter. Those experiencing homelessness may live in their car or temporarily stay with family or friends.

“Everybody sees the people on the street and that type of homelessness, but [homelessness]is so much deeper than that,” said Jodee O’Brien, CEO of United Way of Williamson County, which provides resources and financial guidance to area residents. “A lot of these people have been working, and one medical bill or flat tire and they get evicted and become homeless, living in their cars. Being homeless doesn’t mean they’re necessarily out on the street; they might be couch-surfing or living with different people, but they don’t really have a permanent home.”

O’Brien said with the area’s rapid population growth there has been an increase in homeless residents or those in need of immediate assistance to avoid losing permanent housing.

According to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates from March, Williamson County is the fifth fastest-growing county in Texas. That population growth has led to a jump in property values.

Along with rising property values, Flores said she has seen cases in which residents are unable to find housing due to past evictions or debt.

Flores and O’Brien said both of their organizations as well as other community nonprofits work closely with the Round Rock ISD Families in Transition program, which identifies and aids students without a permanent home.

Homeless students

Desiree Le serves as the coordinator for RRISD’s Families in Transition program. In her role, Le identifies students without permanent homes and works to provide resources for them and their families.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that supports the rights of students experiencing homelessness, every district is required to assign a homeless liaison. The act is intended to ensure that any student lacking a fixed, adequate and regular nighttime residence is provided with resources.

The act provides five categories to identify homelessness: unsheltered; living in a hotel or motel; living in a shelter or transitional housing; awaiting foster care placement; or temporarily staying with friends or other families, which is commonly referred to as “doubled up.”

In the 2017-18 school year, RRISD reported 803 students experiencing one of those forms of homelessness, accounting for 1.64 percent of the district’s total enrollment of 49,086 students. The majority of those students, Le said, are doubled up.

One of the most vulnerable student populations, Le said, is those who are not living in custody of parents or other guardians.

“A quarter of the homeless population in a school district is usually unaccompanied youth,” Le said.

One of the district’s priorities with homeless students, Le said, is ensuring they are able to continue attending their schools of origin, or the schools the students attended when they lost their housing.

“We have had some students that have gone to 10 campuses in one year,” Le said. “It can be very difficult for families to keep their kids at a school.”

Le said that a third of the student population she works with are transported to school, some from as far as Bastrop or Del Valle.

“They call it the invisible student population for a reason,” Le said. “There are a lot of students that stay under the radar. For every homeless student identified in the state there are probably twice as many [who are homeless].”

Le, who has also worked in a similar role for Austin ISD and Dallas ISD, said the problem unique to RRISD is the lack of a traditional shelter or low-income housing in the area that is accessible to residents.

“People call my office, and they want housing solutions, and it’s the one thing I can’t provide for them,” Le said. “I know families that are on a three- or four-month or yearlong waiting list to get a Section 8 housing voucher. … That, to me, is probably the hardest thing. There is not a lot of housing solutions to offer.”

Searching for solutions

Connie Odom, Williamson County public affairs manager, said constructing a homeless shelter is not a core duty of the county, and homelessness is not something that has been discussed in Commissioners Court meetings. Odom said the county values the role that nonprofits and faith-based groups play in providing social services.

Funding homeless shelters happens in a variety of ways. In Austin, for example, the ARCH is owned by the city and run by a nonprofit. One of Austin’s Salvation Army shelters, the Austin Shelter for Women and Children, is owned by the city, but the group’s Downtown Shelter is not. It gets funding primarily from private sources, according to Kelly Perkins, director of development for Austin Salvation Army.

While Williamson County does not have specific programs for the homeless, Odom said it offers grant funds to efforts such as Hope Alliance, a shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence, and Habitat for Humanity. The TBCH in Round Rock offers housing for children and single-parent families.

TBCH currently houses 79 children and 42 mothers and receives between 50 and 60 phone calls requesting assistance each month, Rippstein said. The majority of those clients are from Round Rock with most of the remainder coming from Williamson County.

TBCH opened in 1950 as an orphanage and expanded in 1979 to work with single mothers and children.

“When we started the [family]program in 1979 we only had capacity for a couple of families,” Rippstein said. “It has grown to the capacity we have today of 40-plus families, and the fact that we are getting so many phone calls each month shows that there continues to be a high demand.”

Lori Wiste, family care supervisor for TBCH, said TBCH sees an increase in families seeking shelter right before the beginning of the school year. The leading cause of homelessness that TBCH sees is financial strain, Wiste said.

“I think there are so many Americans that are just a paycheck or two away from homelessness that when something out of the ordinary happens like an unexpected expense or job loss … things can slip apart pretty quickly,” Rippstein said.

Rippstein said TBCH works closely with RRISD to make sure homeless students are able to attend school and are provided with necessary resources, such as counseling, which Rippstein said is very important for that population of children.

“Kids that have been facing trauma—whether it’s a lack of a place to live or a lack of food—it’s hard for them to go to school and focus,” Rippstein said. “We try to help them get back up to where they need to be.”

Jaymie Clark, independent living and after care coordinator for TBCH, said that one of the goals at TBCH is to help families reach a point at which they can live independently. Clark said she will regularly check on past clients and remains available to provide counseling and guidance when problems arise. One of the biggest resources for those clients to find that independence, Clark said, is affordable housing.

The Round Rock Housing Authority operates three public housing locations, one of which is available only to seniors. Applications for public housing are selected from a waitlist by way of a lottery system. According to RRHA, public housing is limited to individuals who are classified as low-income, and eligibility is based on annual gross income; whether the applicant qualifies as elderly, disabled or a family; and citizenship status. The estimated waiting period for housing is between 18 and 24 months, according to RRHA. Le said she works with families who have been on the waitlist for months and in some cases more than a year.

RRHA also administers Section 8 housing certificates, which allow a person to pay a subsidized rent according to his or her income.

O’Brien said residents in need of assistance are encouraged to call 211, a number that can connect them with area organizations able to help their specific situations. Williamson County also hosts the website http://wilco.auntbertha.com, which connects residents with area resources based on their ZIP codes.

In October Hutto nonprofits Hutto Has Heart and the Hutto Community Food Pantry merged to create the Hutto Resource Center, which provides food, clothing and financial assistance to families in need. The nonprofit sees an average of nine or 10 families each month, according to Paul McIntier, program coordinator for the Hutto Resource Center.

“August is typically our big month as electric and water usage peaks. We also see that a number of folks are in back-to-school mode, and sometimes school clothes and school supply shopping leaves folks a little short for the month,” McIntier said, adding that the center assisted 21 families in August.

“There are a lot of great programs out there that are helping,” O’Brien said. “It is important for residents to pay attention. … There might be people they actually know who are homeless or couch-surfing, and they would never know it. There is the obvious homeless population, but there is homelessness that people generally aren’t aware of.”

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