More than a Meal: How Austin Ministries Are Expanding Their Approach to Homelessness

Written by on May 26, 2021

East of downtown Austin, a row of more than 20 closely linked tents and makeshift shelters are set up outside the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library, around the corner from Christ Church of Austin.

The church’s associate rector, Matt Dampier, visits the homeless encampment on Sundays to meet with people and offer communion. I walked with him to the encampment shortly after a recent election that reinstated a camping ban designed to remove growing homeless encampments throughout the Texas capital.

“They’re trying to get all those homeless people out of sight,” Amy Goldman, 44, told us. “What they need to do is lower the cost of living and allow a living wage.”

Goldman, wearing a clean Philippians 4:13 T-shirt, has been homeless for nine years. She moves between this camp, where she shares shelter with another person, and one further south where she keeps her own tent tucked away.

Goldman’s response accurately reflects that someone with a minimum-wage job ($7.25 an hour) would have to work 120 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Austin, according to Ending Community Homeless Coalition (ECHO) 2020 data.

Limping along the wet sidewalk after a heavy downpour, Stephen Holmes, 54, stops to speak with us, his bare feet splattered with post-rain debris and his disabled left leg jutting outward.

“I’m not living the American dream,” Holmes said. He’s originally from Austin and attended Anderson High School on the northwest side of town. “I’m an Anderson Trojan,” he said proudly, as my heart sunk even further when I heard him name my neighborhood school.

Holmes had been on disability and taking care of his father for ten years before he died. He became homeless for the first time three months ago. “I want to be self-sufficient,” he said. “The state is going to need to find some cheap housing.” Dampier asked Holmes if he could pray for him, which he did.

Goldman and Holmes are among some 3,160 people experiencing homelessness in Austin/Travis County, with 2,238 of those living unsheltered in tents, cars, and abandoned buildings as opposed to traditional shelters, according to 2021 statistics from ECHO. Austin’s Homeless Response System shows a 4.5 percent increase in the unhoused from 2019 to 2021, with a 20.6 percent increase for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

Historically, the role of churches has been to distribute meals, clothing, and hygiene items, as well as offer community and fellowship, said Emily Seales, a christian social worker who was a case management supervisor at Trinity Center in downtown Austin and is now engaged in a technology and health research study for Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center and the University of Texas.

Growth in encampments over the past two years and recent debate over the reinstated public camping ban have led more leaders, such as Seales, to focus both on temporary assistance for their vulnerable neighbors and on advocacy to fix what they see as broken systems that have left people without livable wages and affordable housing in the first place. Part of that advocacy includes accelerating cooperative efforts between the city, established nonprofits, churches, faith-based organizations, and individuals.

“I don’t think the city knows what to do with faith communities,” said Cathy Stone, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in downtown Austin. “But I think it’s important that we start practicing and showing that we can do more and that we also want to be involved in advocating and decision making.”

The bipartisan advocacy group Save Austin Now campaigned this spring to reinstate the public camping ban that Austin city leaders lifted back in 2019. The proposed ban, called Proposition B, passed in a May 1 special election, with 58 percent of voters in favor and 42 percent against. The ban now makes sitting, lying, or camping in public a criminal offense and prohibits soliciting money at certain times and locations. Now, Texas is moving toward banning camping statewide.

The clearing of encampments will be delayed to allow the city time to implement a four-phase plan that includes conducting outreach and community engagement before enforcing the ban through citations and arrests. Austin’s city manager, Spencer Cronk, said at a press conference that the city is looking into a variety of housing options, including city-sanctioned encampments—with the possibility of some on church properties. As one of its temporary solutions, the city has purchased three hotels to help with the transition to permanent housing.

Stone’s downtown church was highly vocal against the ban, including its senior pastor, Taylor Fuerst, who preached against it prior to early voting. Christ Church on the east side, where Dampier has been building relationships with members of the homeless community, was more divided.

In Dampier’s 800–900 person congregation, those in favor of reinstating the camping ban argued that the city failed to find housing solutions in the two years that the ban was lifted and raised concerns about the lack of dignity and vulnerability of living on the streets. Last year was one of the deadliest for people experiencing homelessness in Austin, with at least 256 deaths, KUT reported, based on figures from Austin’s street newspaper The Challenger.

Even those against the ban did not want to see people living permanently in encampments, Dampier said, but they were concerned about the lack of space at shelters to house them. Most of the people he spoke with preferred a more phased-out approach to empower those in encampments and incentivize cleanup.

For years, Christians in Austin have offered aid and assisted in rehousing, and those efforts have continued during the pandemic. In downtown Austin, Trinity Center provides meals, bus passes, and case management, and in East Austin, Angel House, Austin Baptist Chapel’s soup kitchen, has remained opened for breakfast.

Austin’s well-known Mobile Loaves & Fishes food truck ministry has served millions of meals since 1998, and its tiny house Community First! Village is planning its fourth phase of development that will add 1,400 tiny houses over the next decade to its existing 500-house, 51-acre full-service community northeast of town.

First United Methodist houses a Mobile Loaves & Fishes food truck and supplies volunteers for its downtown run. Prepandemic, the congregation also fed breakfast to 250–300 people twice a week followed by a worship service, and it continues to provide showers for women.

Mission Possible sets up Church Under the Bridge, where four churches sponsor a Sunday a month to host weekly worship at encampment sites beneath overpasses.

Amy and Simon Kenyon, members of Christ Church, can walk to the bridge at Sixth Street and I-35 where they’ve been leading services for 50–60 people on the first Sunday of the month for eight years. They hand out sausage wraps and coffee, which is secondary to the worship service, they said.

The Kenyons consider the gospel as the transformative factor for those experiencing homelessness. “It’s shocking to us how little faith Christians have in the gospel,” Amy Kenyon said. “It’s usually heart issues that lead people to the streets.”

Factors around homelessness abound, according to social worker Emily Seales, and include trauma, domestic violence, chronic health conditions, growing up in foster care, mental health diagnoses, intellectual disabilities, issues with the criminal justice system, and systemic racism and housing policy, atop the lack of affordable housing.

Simon Kenyon, who is ordained through the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, said that he believes in more potential for those on the streets and that God has a better plan for them.

“I think of Ephesians 2:10,” he said, “to be God’s workmanship; something that he’s created beforehand for each one of us to do and to be.”

The Kenyons voted to reinstate the camping ban partly to help incentivize getting off the streets but also because they were told by those experiencing homelessness that Austin streets have become more dangerous due to the influx of people from other states.

Despite those perceptions, 83 percent of people who are homeless in Austin started that journey in Austin or Texas, according to Seales. With the passage of Prop B, “there’s literally nowhere to go,” she said. “People will go deeper into the woods, or there will be efforts in the same place over and over again to help people move along.”

Some Christians are trying to simplify and accelerate the process of helping those experiencing homelessness by partnering with various agencies under one roof.

Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center provides that kind of integrated model. The ministry grew out of Sunrise Community Church’s desire to offer assistance to those in several nearby south Austin encampments. The center now serves food and offers showers, an address for mail, mental health workers, a health clinic, and housing case managers.

Over six years, Sunrise has become its own entity with five paid staff and more than 100 volunteers, although it still shares a building with the church. They work together with various agencies’ staff to serve 200–300 clients every day and recently helped house their 550th person, said Mark Hilbelink, lead pastor of the church and director of the navigation center.

Hilbelink operates from a Calvinist theology, he said, that believes strongly in God’s election of people. “We’re not constantly in fear of people’s salvation status,” he said. For that reason, the social work aspect takes precedence over evangelism, he said.

Sunrise’s current goal is to replicate its integrative model through a program called Compass Network that helps train and connect churches with the social services community. Sunrise adheres to the approach that handouts need to go hand in hand with a connection to the larger social services community. Hilbelink has also been mentoring Leah Hargrave, a deacon at Mosaic Church and director of Mosaic Street Ministry, to create a navigation center in north Austin.

Currently Sunrise is working with three teams of four to seven churches per team that have adopted a nearby microhomeless population (about 100 people). Christ

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