AUSTIN (KXAN) — As families and friends gathered this Christmas, others gave back to a community that’s in glaring need of help: Austin’s homeless population.
Downtown, beneath Interstate 35, dozens gathered under the bridge for a hot meal and donated warm clothes.
“We’re just a group of caring people that want to help others. We want to share our experience, strength and hope and our blessings,” organizer Richard Phillips said.
The city recently released a snapshot of where it stands when it comes to addressing this issue, including seizing more than a million dollars worth of K2, a business plan now in place for a Veterans Resource Center, meetings for a pilot program to connect the homeless with work opportunities and metrics to better track the scope of Austin’s homelessness.
“I see that there’s people that need help. And they’re no better or worse than we are,” Pastor Colin Haig told KXAN. For him Christmas is a reminder that we’re more the same than we are different.
“They are somebody’s mother or father or brother or sister and they are part of the community just as well,” Haig said
The homeless community has become a growing priority for the city of Austin, with audits finding missed opportunities to help the population.
KXAN asked Haig what gaps he sees.
“Really, I think that we need to walk a mile in their shoes.”
And Haig has.
“I actually was living in the ARCH about three months, several years ago. Went through a divorce, so I know the feeling of not having anything. Also, my father was homeless for many years,” Haig said. “So I have a heart for the homeless, a burden for them, and I wish that more of the community would come out and help out and show that they care about them.”
It was during that time, Haig saw the lottery system that is the ARCH. The luck of the draw, for a bed.
“There’s been times where I didn’t get a ticket and I had to sleep outside. Then you have to contend with the law enforcement. So it’s like you win or lose,” Haif said. “I think they should change up a little bit and be able to open up the doors for more people.”
Kelly Burk says she understand Austin Police have a job to do. But there’s more to consider.
“They need to clean up the streets, but moving us when we’re sleeping in the middle of the night is not really fair,” Burk said, with tears welling in her eyes.
Just as there’s more factors to consider, she says, there’s more to the struggle than what meets the eye beneath the bridge. Each person, with a story to tell.
“Everybody’s one bill away from being homeless,” Burk said. “I lost my apartment, I lost everything. It’s not a decision that we make on our own. Mental illness is not something we choose. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve dignity. And human respect.”
Haig says it’s not just about religion.
“It’s not about faith, it’s not about anything like that. It’s just about compassion. Humanity. And that’s what we need to do,” he said.
Humanity, combined with the resources necessary to make a difference in the new year.
Back in August, the city council voted to develop a pilot program to match homeless individuals with temporary jobs. Here’s a status update: Those in charge of the program are working to figure out how many people would be interested. The city is also looking at how to meet housing, mental health and financial counseling needs, and how to raise awareness of the program. Similar job-finding programs are underway in Albuquerque, Denver and Seattle.
Heading into 2018, the city also launched a new website called “All of Us Austin” that will be used for community education and engagement, in the pursuit of ending homelessness.