Homeless in Austin, TX- An Insider’s View

Posted on 10/15/2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

Hard times have hit us all at one time or another.  We have seen the high unemployment numbers and the dismal forecast for economy in America.  I never thought as a college graduate I would have an inside view of the day to day struggles of the homeless but I am there and will share my experiences so that people might gain a better insight and understanding of the plight we are facing in America.

I have been unemployed since March of 2008.  Without unemployment benefits, I took to couch surfing and doing odd jobs for cash.  Once the 2008 general elections were over and a new era in American History began, I started a new journey of my own.  I spent a few weeks in a weekly motel that cost enough per week that I could have rented an apartment if I had not been evicted back in June.  I realized that not only had I run out of money but I had also run out of options. I finally had to admit I needed more help than was available and I would have to take drastic steps.  I moved my computer and many possessions that would not fit in a rolling suitcase and left them with a friend.  I spent one last night on another friend’s sofa and then I was truly on the streets and homeless.

I arrived at Sally (The Salvation Army) and found out they do a raffle every morning for beds that become available in the men’s dorm.  I was there at 8:45 am and waited as I watched more and more men file in hoping to get a bed for Wednesday night.  The counselor came out and asked how many men were there for a bed.  15 men ranging in age from 18 to 70 raised their hands.  The counselor said they only had two beds.  As he walked around the room with a hat with 15 slips of paper, he informed us if we got a number we had a bed but if not we would have to try again the next day.  I was not one of the lucky ones.

Realizing I had to do something I started asking questions and was told that I could try the lottery at <a href=http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/downtown/arch.htm”>ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless)</a> at 6pm.  I took my rolling suitcase and Netroots nation bag and headed over to ARCH to ask questions.  I had to wait in line to get in and then have my bags go through an x-ray security machine like the ones they sue at the airport and then file through a metal detector.  I went to the desk and asked what I need to do and to verify times for the lottery.  I was also informed that if the temperature was below 40 degrees, they would allow more people to stay.  The first night I was lucky enough to draw a number which meant I could sleep on a mat on the floor in the lobby of ARCH. One the lottery was over I was led into the building and told I would have to take a shower.  The ARCH does not provide towels and since I had not thought to back one, I had to dry off with paper towels.  I was then given a thin pallet to sleep on. Well, I would not exactly call it sleeping.  I lay on the pallet with a coat and a sweatshirt rolled up as a pillow.  I had another coat that I used as a blanket.  I was close to the stairs that led upstairs to the bathrooms and people were walking by my head all night.  There was snoring, coughing, people crying out in their sleep and even a few arguments.  Lights out was at 9:30 but if you have ever been by ARCH you know they have security lights that are on 24/7.  Reading was not a problem since I could not really sleep.  At 4:30 am the people on the first floor were awakened so they could start setting up the lobby for the day.  They served us coffee and granola bars.  I had survived my first night as a homeless person.

The next two nights I was lucky enough to win cold weather lotteries and spend the night at two different churches who fed us dinner and breakfast before sending us back to ARCH.  On Saturday morning, I was finally able to get assigned a bed at Sally.  I no longer have to fear not having a bed as long as I follow all the rules.  There are many rules and hoops you must jump through to qualify for the different programs and I will be discussing those and my life as a homeless person in future installments.

This series of diaries is a way to explain what is going on in my life and what I am learning as I worked through the different programs available for the homeless in Austin, Texas.  I am not seeking donations of any kind but warm thoughts as I do what I have to do to get back on my feet. Of course, if someone has an old laptop with a wireless card they would like to donate, I would gladly accept. LOL  This will happen and I have started the process even if it does seem daunting at time.

I now have a bed at Sally (The Salvation Army) in Austin.  I no longer have to go through a lottery at night to see if I have a bed or a pallet on the floor to sleep on.  I have even started the full time work of getting into and satisfying all the requirements for the different assistance programs available.  There are many programs available if someone will just take the time to ask questions and then follow through on all the requirements.  It doesn’t matter if you are Staying at Sally or Arch (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) you have to have a current TB test read or an x-ray.  There are several ways to fulfill this requirement.  You can wait in line at ARCH to see if they have time to administer the test or you can go to several clinics around town that offer the service and wave the fee for the homeless.  On of the easiest programs to use is the RBJ Clinic at 5 Waller St.  On Friday afternoon, you can receive the skin test from 1pm till 3pm and return Monday between 10 am and 11 am to have the test read.  If you are taking a bus which most homeless people are, this has basically taken all of Friday afternoon and all of Monday morning.  This is only 1 step in may steps or hoops you must jump through to receive assistance but it is a vital one for the health of the community.

Here are just a few of the other steps I am working through now to keep my bed and also be approved for other programs as well as fight my way back from being homeless.  I have been fast tracked into the Job Search Program at Sally.  With this program, I meet with my case worker once a week to make sure I am making headway and following program guidelines to find employment.   On Wednesday of each week, I must turn in a sheet where I have made at least 5 contacts per day about jobs or services.  I can count any meeting I have had with a case manager as part of the 5 as well as any email, call or appointment about a job.   This makes hitting the magic 5 much easier.

I have also started the Re-Entry Program at <a href=http://caritasofaustin.org/index.php>Caritas of Austin</a>.  There was a one hour orientation meeting on Tuesday.  The orientation only occurs once a month.  This program is for single homeless adults with no dependents.  They also have a program called passages for families and those who have dependent children.  I will attend a group meeting next week with my case manager and then go from there.  The program will help me face obstacles, meet goals and eventually find work and a home.  There will be meetings I must attend and I have no clue what other requirements but I know I am up to the challenge.

I am also trying to get my MAP card which is an insurance card for homeless people.  This is yet another lottery system.  I have to line up at 8:45 am at Sally to see if I win the lottery to get my card.  So far, I have not won but then I can not always be there as I have other meetings I can not miss.  When I finally win the lottery, I will place my name on a list and then go to ARCH between 1pm and 3pm to get my card.  As you can tell this limits what you can do in the am of any day and also restricts the entire day once you win the lottery for a card.  Traveling by bus in Austin is easy but it is never fast and if you miss the appointment you have to start all over.

I am not complaining as I know they have many people they need to help and only limited resources and time but I have come to realize that being homeless and working to get off the streets and out of the shelters is a full time job.  You also have to figure in time to eat, where to eat and be back at Sally in time to sign in for your bed each evening.    The lights are cut on in the dorm around 6am and reveille is played over the loud speaker shortly afterwards.  I am usually awake long before all this and have already taken my shower and gone outside to smoke a morning cigarette. Breakfast is served to residents at 7:30.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, most residents leave Sally and Arch to head over to a church at 13th and Lavaca for a hot breakfast.  They start handing out tickets at 5:30am and serve at 6am.  The people of this church are fabulous and offer many smiles, warm food, books, shoes, other items of clothing as well as haircuts on Tuesdays and a seamstress on Thursday.  I wish I could remember the name of the church but … I will add it in another diary later.  For lunch, you have a choice of eating at Sally if you are a resident, Caritas or <a href=”http://angelhouse-abc.com/“>Angel House</a>.  You can get a hot lunch, a salad, a dessert and something to drink.  Angel House always has great soup and during the cold weather it has been great.  I will say that after a few days of eating almost the same thing every meal it gets harder to eat or at least it has for me.  I make sure I eat fruit and at least try a little of everything on my plate.  I am staring to say no to most desserts as too much sugar just wears me out.  Lunch starts at 11 at Angel House and every place has a different time.  You have to try and fit it in between meetings and applying for jobs or just skip it.

Once lunch is done, you try and make it to appointments or out to workforce, the computer lab, or to the library to send resumes unless you have a job interview.  While doing all this you have to keep in the back of your mind that you have to sign into the men’s dorm at Sally by 7pm to keep your bed unless you have a late pass because of work.  You can pick up your bed slip as early as 4pm and sign in as early as 5 upstairs.  You are given a towel and two sheets if you need them.  Dinner for male residents is at 5pm and last till 5:30pm.  We are allowed in the dorm and back outside till 7pm.  After 7pm you are not allowed back outside if you are in the regular men’s dorm.  After 9pm, we are not allowed out of the dorm itself.  Needless to say there is no smoking allowed inside so once 7pm rolls around I am done smoking for the night until around 5am the following day. LOL  Lights out is around 10pm but it is never completely dark as they leave some lights so security and staff can walk through the dorm if needed.

Having lived on my own for the majority of the last 10 years, I miss my privacy more than anything.  I sleep in a dorm with 150 or so other men.  The mix is quite a strange and sometimes wonderful one.  The homeless are all ages, races, ethnic and religious backgrounds.  Sometimes this can lead to wonderful discussions or to high DRAMA.  I have learned very quickly to avoid DRAMA at all cost. I have almost become use to showing in a large communal shower as I did back in high school.  I will never get use to toilet stalls that do not have doors.  I might do #1 at Sally but #2 is reserved for other places such as the library or workforce where I can have just a little bit more privacy.

Sleeping at night is something that is becoming easier.  It is strange to hear some many people snoring, talking to each other, on cell phones, or even in their sleep.  There is also the sound of coughing as some are sick with colds and with any such environment the colds seem to make there way through the crowd.  I guess the worst is when you hear someone crying out in their sleep as they relive a bad experience or have a nightmare.  You feel for them but don’t dare wake them as you don’t know them well enough to help and are having problems and ghost of your own to deal with as you try and sleep.

Yes, I miss my privacy most but I am doing what I need to do to get my life back on tract.  This is a tough journey I have begun but one that will allow me to reach certain goals.  One of my dreams is to get back on my feet where I can help others once again.  I am not in a position where I can help others at this time but I can be a friend to those I meet who are dealing with some of the same struggles and demons as I.

Look for the next installment as I keep sharing my experiences and thoughts as I make a journey in self discovery.  Keep the good thoughts coming and I will keep you informed as I make my way back.  Due to computer limitations, I will not be able to respond but know that I am reading comments and emails that I get when I can.


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4 Responses to “Homeless in Austin, TX- An Insider’s View”

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What do single older women do who are homeless – in the age bracket of 50-60 (preretirement). Also where did you get the money for busfare? Can you get food stamps if homeless?

There are limited resources available for all homeless people. Women can try and get a bed at the Salvation Army. I am not sure about other shelters. I was lucky that I had friends who helped me with bus fare but I know there are different groups and churches that try and help with bus fare. You can receive food stamps when you are homeless. Anyone who is in this situation can get a list of services for the Homeless from either the ARCH in Austin or from their local Social Services office( ie food stamp office).

Hello. This is going to seem like a very strange request, but I’m willing to give anything a shot to help out Austin’s homeless community. I work for the Census Bureau as a Crew Leader and liaison between the Office Staff and Field Staff. Part of the 2010 Decennial Census includes getting an accurate count of those people experiencing homelessness by doing a quick headcount of outdoor non-sheltered locations where these people might sleep if they do not get into Sally or Arch. At the moment, our list of locations is rather low, but we are always looking to add more. The more locations, the more people counted, the more funding Austin receives for social welfare programs. If you believe you could be of any help in formulating a list of locations, please let me know. I’d be happy to talk over email, the phone, or meet in person. Thank you for your time and consideration.

I was lucky enough never to be on the streets themselves and was in a shelter. I would suggest contacting the ARCH(Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) and the Salvation Army. You should also contact Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Also contact Legal Aide of Austin. They do a lot of work with the Homeless in Austin.

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