BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — The Bastrop pastor who’s been building mini-shelters on his property for families experiencing homelessness is preparing again this year to pass out hundreds of gifts to families in need.
Roland Nava, founder of the Open Door Soup Kitchen, will again don the moniker “Vato Claus” to deliver donated toys and groceries this holiday season, drawing the name from the Spanish slang for “guy” or “dude.”
Now in his seventh year as Vato Claus, the pastor expects to serve about 1,000 families, up from 600 last year.
“There’s more families coming in from Houston, coming in from Austin especially, and they’re just not having enough to even pay their rent, much less get a toy for their children,” Nava said.
Nava was inspired by a friend of his, Richard Reyes, who’s been patrolling the streets of Houston as “Pancho Claus” since the 1980s, delivering thousands of gifts each year.
“Brought a lot of joy to people that lived in the poverty areas,” he remembered. When he was growing up in Houston, Nava said, Pancho Claus gave him a gift.
“Now that my life has changed for the better, now I want to give back to the community what was given to me.”
In addition to donated toys and games, Nava will also be giving out dozens of bikes this year. Waste Connections of Texas in Austin built and will donate 50 bikes to the cause for the second year.
His plan to spread cheer this holiday season comes as he expands his efforts to support families who need a helping hand to get back on their feet.
Nava grew his soup kitchen operation to include a collection of mini-shelters for families experiencing homelessness two years ago. The number of shelters on his property grew to eight earlier this year thanks to funding from donors.
Rebecca Carlson has been staying in one of the rent-free spaces for about three months now with her three daughters.
“Thankfully we got to stay together as a family, but we needed a big change from where we were,” she said, “and it was nice to be able to come here.”
Nava, once homeless himself, said 37 families have come through his shelters, and another 16 are currently on the waiting list.
After a few months staying for free, Nava will soon have a transitional housing option on the same property.
In the last few weeks, he received two full-size trailers to add to a new piece of property he just finished clearing next to the soup kitchen property.
One of them will be turned into a low-rent option for families leaving his free shelters, and the other will be for disabled veterans. Once he gets a septic system installed, at a cost of about $10,000, he said, he’ll be able to start offering both mobile homes to people in need.
He told KXAN he needs to install a second septic system for the new cold-weather emergency shelter he built on the property. He opened it for the first time last month for 13 people seeking refuge from the November cold snap. The second septic system will cost about $6,000, he said.
Businesses or groups can donate funds to the projects by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org, calling 512-317-7503 or visiting his organization’s Facebook page.
The next development
Nava isn’t done yet.
His next venture will be to buy an additional five acres of wooded land behind his current property, clear it out and build a 40-apartment complex.
“If we can make something that’s affordable for them as they’re coming in to save their money and then to pay a little rent, maybe from there they could transition from there into getting their own home someday,” he said.
There’s a real need for affordable housing in the area. The Bastrop Housing Authority has just 80 affordable units it can offer to families, but the wait list can be up to two years long. It would likely be even longer, the agency said, but some families can’t wait that long, so they seek help elsewhere.
Carlson is thankful that she found Nava when she did. “Everyone here is so gracious and generous,” she said.
Tuesday, at his urging, she picked out some gifts for her daughters from the collection he plans to disperse closer to Christmas.
“I was a bit of a cynical person growing up,” she said, “so it’s nice to know there are people like Pastor Roland and, you know, just really nice people out there.”