Why one south Austin church says it’s found success, helped lift up 550 homeless

Austin

Mark Hilbelink (right) has served as lead director of Sunrise Community Church in South Austin for 11 years. The church’s homelessness navigation center assists Austin residents like Scottie (left). (Kelsey Thompson/KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dozens of people lined up around Sunrise Community Church in south Austin Monday, with lead director Mark Hilbelink walking through the crowd, saying hello to those he passed. Serving as lead pastor for 11 years and as director of Sunrise’s homeless navigation center for six, once unfamiliar faces have since become regulars.

When Austin voters approved Proposition B on May 1 and opted to reinstate the city’s camping ban, Hilbelink said he wasn’t surprised. The writing had been on the walls for months, if not years, he said; the shock was that it wasn’t passed by a higher margin.

“Everybody wants to say, well, it’s all criminalization or it’s no criminalization. Everybody’s just all or nothing about the whole conversation,” he said. “And the people who lose are the people that are on the streets. And those are the people that are not having the conversation.”

Sunrise Community Church provides food, clothing, housing and medical care access to those experiencing homelessness.
Sunrise Community Church provides food, clothing, housing and medical care access to those experiencing homelessness. (Kelsey Thompson/KXAN)

Sunrise adopted an integrated approach toward addressing issues facing those without housing — a concept Hilbelink referred to as a one-stop shop for people to access food, clothing, shelter, medical care and mental health resources.

Outside of its in-house food and clothing distributions and housing assistance programs, Sunrise partnered with Integral Care to provide on-site mental health support and CommUnityCare for a physical healthcare clinic. He pointed to city programs like San Antonio’s strategic homelessness response plans as means of consolidating resources to enhance their success and accessibility.

“Being homeless, you’re getting shot down before you even have a chance.”

Holly Edwards, Spent 19 years on the streets of Austin

Holly Edwards spent 22 years living on the streets, 19 of which were spent in Austin. Disowned by her family, she said she was left with nothing and no means of finding adequate housing or employment opportunities.

For about eight years, she has been working with Sunrise to access necessary health and living resources. Sunrise helped place her in her apartment, covering rent for her as she paid for the remaining utility costs.

The biggest misconception facing those experiencing homelessness is the misnomer that all prefer to live on the streets, she said. While Edwards said she agreed with aspects of the ban — specifically that people living near intersections or highways endangered themselves and others — she added the ban does not encompass the nuances of why people are homeless and how best to care for them.

As someone struggling with a disability and mental health conditions, she said proper medical and mental health care is difficult to come by. She has been turned away from jobs due to a former felony charge and been let go from other positions due to some of her mental health struggles, Edwards said.

Homeless resources too spread out with no great transportation options, homeless say

For those fortunate enough to be able to afford public transit, trying to access resources located throughout the city becomes a lengthy and convoluted process, she said.

“Being homeless, you’re getting shot down before you even have a chance,” she said.

Sunrise has helped house more than 550 people during his tenure, Hilbelink said. He said the program’s success ultimately comes down to its integrated approach, listening to what specific resources each person needs.

“That sort of integrated approach is not just a kind of a moral imperative to combine humanitarian aid and housing. It’s actually the most efficient, academically proven strategy to actually house people,” he said. “Because we’re able to do that full approach, we’ve been pretty successful at getting people through the housing system and into housing.”

When the camping ban goes into effect Tuesday, Hilbelink said the issues surrounding homelessness won’t disappear overnight. 

As Austin looks into adaptation methods, including temporary, designated campsites, he said city leaders need to look toward other cities that have successfully consolidated camps and resources for those living in them.

Homelessness is not a one-cause issue, and its solution needs to be multifaceted in approach, Hilbelink said. Taking measures like consolidated resource centers and sanctioned living spaces are just two examples of steps toward addressing a nuanced situation in a more proactive way, he said.

“The reality is that most people, if you lined up a hundred homeless people, they’re going to tell you that they have a hundred different reasons for being homeless,” he said. “Let’s take a systemwide approach, let’s have some teamwork, let’s do this together.”

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