Helping the homeless: Austin volunteers pay for hotel rooms, deliver food

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As temperatures reach new lows and snow and ice pile up on the streets, the homeless camps that are usually bustling look abandoned. 

The relocation of many of Austin’s homeless population is partially thanks to citizen volunteer groups, such as Austin Mutual Aid and Austin Community Advancement Brigade. Starting on Saturday, these fully volunteer-run groups have put as many people as possible in hotel rooms.

Largely organizing on social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, volunteers have worked through their own struggles to put about 400 people in shelters and provide over 500 meals.

Austin Mutual Aid founder and volunteer coordinator Bobby Cooper was out picking up people and transporting them to shelters all day Tuesday, despite experiencing difficulties at his own house due to the freezing temperatures.

 “It’s extremely difficult for not just me, but all the drivers,” Cooper said. “A lot of us live in the neighborhoods that are underserved by the city, so we have lost power too.”

Volunteer Colleen Tabolt has been working from home to coordinate hotel rooms for people living on the street. Austin Mutual Aid has been fundraising online in order to pay for the hotels through Saturday.

“We’ve been working as much as we can using a full volunteer force to get the unhoused population into temporary housing,” Tabolt said. “Mostly hotels, some hostel type situations, and some shelters when we don’t have any hotels.”

Austin Mutual Aid is temporarily operating out of the Coconut Club and Cuatro Gato on the corner of Colorado and West 4th. Volunteers are collecting donations of blankets, coats and nonperishable foods. They’re also putting out calls for help on their Instagram.

Elmer Ferro, Anissa del Rosario Schiek and Jose Garcia, who call themselves the Arepa Dealers, worked with other volunteers to cook fresh meals for people and families who have called in with requests for help.

“We’re expecting 600 meals today, Ferro said. “We don’t know when they’re coming, but we’re gonna find a home for them.”

Although they’ve been able to help hundreds of people so far, Garcia recognizes this is a temporary solution to a much bigger problem.

“Whatever we do here is going to be like a band-aid,” Garcia said. “This is a systemic problem. We’re trying to do more than just make food, it’s setting an example for other people to do the same.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to many losing their jobs, has increased the gravity of the homelessness issue in Austin.

“Every camp that we go to has lots of new homeless people, people homeless for the first time in their lives because of this pandemic, and it’s going to be worse after this freeze,” Cooper said.

The City of Austin has provided some money to aid efforts to get people off the streets and into warm shelters, but some volunteers worry this will lead to more issues. Tabolt expressed concerns the city will spend all the money allocated for the homeless on hotel rooms and have none left over to create long-term affordable housing.

“That money is not going to the unhoused population or these organizations, it’s actually going to the owners of the hotels rather than getting people into these long-term housing that can actually make a huge difference in their lives,” Tabolt said.

In early February, the City of Austin passed the HEAL Initiative, which would ban homeless camping in four areas deemed “dangerous and unhealthy areas,” according to city officials. The goal of the HEAL Initiative is to rehouse people camping in these areas, Councilmember Ann Kitchen told KXAN in late January.

Cooper stands against any camping bans. He says taking away a person’s tent prolongs their homelessness.

“We need to make it a priority to get everyone housed in the fastest growing city in America, which has a lot of resources and has a lot of money, it just needs to be allocated properly,” Cooper said. “We can get everyone housed that needs it. We can get everyone housed that wants a home.”

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