Homeless veterans earn pay to clean up abandoned encampments across Austin

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in south Austin, six veterans walk through the storm water pond that hugs the Onion Creek Greenbelt. In their gloved hands are trash bags and long-handled trash pickers.

There is litter all around them.

It’s mostly food wrappers, empty water bottles and beer cans. But over the next several hours, the ground they walk will transform into a grassy meadow. And all that trash will be gone.

“We care. We care about what we are doing. We care about what this city is trying to do to make it grow and make it look good for other people coming to the city,” said Lenn Smith, one veteran on-site.

Smith, who has struggled with homelessness for several years, is one of a handful of workers hired by The Other One’s Foundation [TOOF] to clean up watershed protected areas throughout the city. For his services, he is paid $15 per hour.

Smith has lived in Austin for several years now. He said he was in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, serving time in Kuwait.

But in the years after he came back to the United States, he said he fell into substance abuse. Shortly after that, he found himself without a home.

“I finally came to the realization that my life had to change,” Smith said.

Smith said he sought out the services of the local VA office, who paired him with TOOF. The organization has contracted with the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department to clean up around 70 different locations across the city. Most of these sites are abandoned homeless camps where litter and invasive species of plants are rampant.

The foundation, which provides low-barrier employment to those experiencing homelessness, believes this is an opportunity to build self-esteem, camaraderie and to give these men and women the earned resources they need to pull themselves out of poverty.

“You also see people gaining a sense of purpose and direction back in their lives as they start working on our crews and hanging with each other and building a community with us and among themselves,” said Max Moscoe, the community engagement coordinator with The Other One’s Foundation. “That can instill a lot of pride in somebody.”

The most recent Point in Time Count revealed 144 veterans in Austin experiencing homelessness. Only 37 of those men and women were unsheltered. This represents about 3 percent of Austin’s total homeless population, a decrease of about 15 percent since 2018.

The VA helps provide the workers required to tackle the jobs the city needs. In order to earn the paycheck, they must be 18 and currently experiencing homelessness. After each veteran finds stable housing, the VA will continue to help them find more permanent employment.

“With that employment comes an increase in confidence, an increase in feelings of self-worth, a sense of mastery,” said Molly Batschelet, with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Smith agrees. He said he is proud to be the example for other men and women who may be down on their luck.

“They don’t have to necessarily live in deplorable conditions. And by getting out here and doing this kind of work, we are showing them, hey, it can be done. You don’t have to live like that,” Smith said. “I’m living proof that it can help and it will work.”

Watershed Cleaning

KXAN has profiled clean ups carried out by the Watershed Protection Department. On Wednesday, the department said they’ve cleaned out a dozen of the original 20 sites.

So far, the department reports it has picked up almost 15 tons of trash.

Tonight on KXAN News at 10 p.m., Alex Caprariello will show you how you can help Austin’s homeless veterans in need.

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