Seton to support Austin space addressing homelessness, trafficking

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin will soon have a new location to offer care to some of its most vulnerable residents.

Thursday, Seton Healthcare Family announced a partnership with Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, known as ECHO, and SAFE Alliance to address the growing number of people experiencing homelessness and human trafficking in Central Texas. 

As part of this partnership, Seton is donating clinical and office space for the SAFE Alliance. The location of this site won’t be disclosed to protect the privacy of SAFE Alliance clients who are the victims of abuse, assault and violence.

Seton plans to provide an assessment center where human trafficking victims can get resources, counseling, case management and have their basic needs met. This location also aims to be a rapid response center for children and young adults who are victims of human trafficking. 

Seton will also provide a south Austin location for ECHO to have a navigation center for people experiencing homelessness.

ECHO explained their location won’t be a shelter, but rather a place for people to get services and health care. Seton noted the ECHO site will aim to provide acute and chronic care for homeless patients while also helping them get connected with long-term housing. 

Seton is donating these locations for two years and views this as the first step to help these Austin-based organizations find long-term solutions. Both locations are expected to be ready to use by early 2019. 

ECHO executive director Ann Howard said this is exactly the type of private partnership her organization has been calling for over the last few months after city leaders acknowledged that Austin is experiencing a homelessness crisis.

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen was present on behalf of council during the announcement Thursday. She believes the council now sees the urgency of addressing homelessness and trafficking. 

During the 2017 homelessness count in Austin, 1,014 people in Austin were found sleeping unsheltered on the streets in Austin, the highest number in the last eight years. That count also found a total of 2,147 people in Austin experiencing homelessness. 

According to a 2017 study from the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin, more than 300,000 Texans are victims of human trafficking, including nearly 79,000 minors. 

“We’re hearing more from neighbors, we’re seeing and being more and more aware with the conversation that’s happening in the community, that we’re at crisis level,” Kitchen said. “We know we have an affordability crisis, we have crisis with homelessness, it’s so much deeper with so many issues.”

Kitchen’s district is in south Austin where she said the incoming resources for the homeless there will certainly be needed. But she also noted that people experience homelessness in areas all across the city. 

“I think the issues people are experiencing [now] are perhaps more visible, I’m very proud and excited we have neighborhood leaders here today, there’s a recognition in our neighborhoods is we need to do more as a city,” she said. 

City leaders and advocates for Austin’s homeless have long discussed the need for resources for the homelessness beyond downtown where Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless is located. 

“It really makes a difference for us to care for patients and families that need us most where they are, rather than waiting for them to enter the four walls of our health system,” said Craig Cordola, president and CEO for Ascension Texas. 

Cordola explained that Seton had a location they were looking to do something different with and then contacted community partners to see if they’d be interested in using it. 

Austinite Jennifer Mack thinks this new partnership sounds like a great idea.

“I think it’s important to have a place, a space for people to go where they can receive medical care where they can receive mental health services, and where they can receive some resources to help them understand this is not the end-all-be-all,” Mack said. 

She knows firsthand that homelessness and trafficking can often be intertwined, she is a survivor of human trafficking and was formerly homeless. She explained that one day when she was 13 years old, her stepdad picked up her and her siblings. 

“He takes me to this house, leaves me, and now I’m with this man and he had me in a locked room where he had the windows screwed shut,” Mack recalled. 

She now believes she was sold to that man. She was held for two years in captivity with occasional travel where her captor would take her to different cities. At 15, she became pregnant by her captor and managed to run away. Mack was placed in foster care, but initially, she didn’t have the tools to deal with the trauma she’d experienced. 

“I didn’t have a lot of care a lot of resources, mental health care, I had none of that, just tried to deal with it, just push it down,” Mack said. “But eventually, you have to deal with it.”

For the next 10 years, she battled with addiction and found her way to Austin where she and her husband were homeless. 

What she calls “wraparound care” is what made the difference in getting her on a more stable path: having a safe space to go, to get testing, to follow up on testing, to get help finding medication, and to get in touch with doctors who could follow up with her consistently. 

Mack noted it’s really important not just to have mental health services, but to have trauma-informed people giving care. 

 She still needs a little support dealing with the trauma sometimes. Mack explained that you don’t just “get over” the experience of being trafficked with 12 counseling sessions. 

“It’s been 20 years since I’ve been rescued and I still need to see a counselor sometimes, and I’m a counseling student!” she said. 

Mack hopes the services available from this new partnership stick around for the long term too.

“We need to have those services in place, I think its so very important,” she said. 

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