Austin 1 - Homelessness & Poverty: Blog Post Days One and Two


Austin, Texas is a city of color. We arrived here on Sunday evening to stay at the Town Lake YMCA--one of the nicest facilities of its kind. We didn't have much time to enjoy it, though, because Monday was packed tightly with service. In the morning we explored a park and then went to Casa Marianella. Casa serves and resettles refugees from Latin America and Africa. It provides services such as transitional housing, work counseling, free English classes, and much more. It is an irreplaceable resource in the lives of many fleeing violence and conflict in places such as Eritrea and the Congo. Many people arrive in Austin after months of travel, first flying to South America and then hitchhiking to the United States. At Casa, we organized a utility shed, a clothing storage unit, and painted the hallway in bright colors. 

Although we felt at times that these tasks were "soft," it was the kind words from residents that really carried this service home for us. They were so pleased with the their vibrant new walls, and the staff members expressed a deep appreciation for our organizational help. We are so grateful to Casa for their important work. Most shelters in the United States do not work with many of the specific populations, such as refugees who have been denied a visa but cannot return home. 

After leaving Casa Marianella, we went to Front Steps, a full-service homeless organization. Front Steps provides resources such as safe day sleep, night lodging for men, employment resources, and case work counseling. Their primary goal is to house those currently experiencing homelessness. Our task at Front Steps was difficult--we were often answering the questions of clients and handing them mail, or greeting them at the door. Front Steps is a large operation with many moving parts. For many of us, it was our first experience with those experiencing homelessness.We appreciated the exposure to this issue on a very engaged level. We got to see how a non-profit functions as well as the shortcomings of government-owned services. We learned at Front Steps that homelessness is primarily experienced by three different types of people. The demographics here were much different than recent immigrants at Casa Marianella. Many of the clients at Front Steps were regulars, who often formed long lines outside one of the service buildings downtown. 

Our recent proximity to the homeless of Austin has given us a new perspective on how we think about homelessness. We've learned to understand it as a condition rather than a primary identifier. Many of those we spoke to were kind, grateful, and capable. We returned to the YMCA feeling very aware of our place in the world. We learned that service is not always easy, often times it challenges us in ways we wouldn't imagine, but it forces us to grow through our gained knowledge of how the world works. One takeaway we had was about the recent gentrification of Austin--a city which we have come to love quite quickly. Austin is gorgeous, hip, and so so fun. People bike everywhere and are the most friendly of any U.S. city we have ever experienced. But many homeless services are located only a street away from the famous "6th Street" where tourists and locals come to party and socialize. We won't be able to look at luxury housing sprouting up in urban areas quite the same way.


After a full Monday, we were ready to conquer day two. We went to Caritas, a community kitchen located across the street from Front Steps, to help prepare and serve a meal. Our first lesson was food preparation--we had so little time to make a LOT of food. Caritas serves us to 300 people every day! After we tossed salads and chopped tomatoes until our hands cramped, we served guests meals and kept the cafeteria clean. We were able to interact with many clients of Caritas, and this was very impactful in many ways. A lot of the people at the kitchen were also at Front Steps. The homeless community in Austin is very much collected in one area, where people go to get all the resources they need. At Caritas, every one was extremely grateful to us. We felt like the work we had done was important, because we could see the impact we were making from ingredients to finished dishes to satisfied people.

Caritas is a community that fosters a positive vibe for all involved. The same faces show up each week and the clients and volunteers form a strong relationship with one another. We were inspired by the kindness of Linda Jo and the enthusiasm of everyone in the kitchen. They showed us how to believe that every person deserves a nutritious and tasty meal. 

After Caritas, we returned to Front Steps to do some administrative work. For hours, we pored over files of personal records and mail. The work was tedious and it took a very long time. The staff could not stop telling us how important what we were doing was to them. It made us realize how service is sometimes hard work. It's not always the sexy, picture-perfect moments of interacting with people and immediately changing their lives. Sometimes, the menial tasks open up greater availability for a staff that is already often overworked. We hope that our small organizational contributions will help this non-profit run more smoothly.

One takeaway was how often we overlook vital needs in our own daily lives because they are easily met. Things like good food and toiletries are concepts we take for granted, but in this community, people rely on others for everything. They have very little control over their lives. Something many of us took back today was the importance of volunteers to these organizations. At Caritas, if volunteers don't show up, hundreds of people will go without a meal that day. We really are starting to see the impact and importance of homeless services in downtown Austin.

Every day we see more of this city's beauty, and we look forward to continuing to understand the different demographics of Austin's homelessness and poverty problem.

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