‘How do you shelter-in-place when you have no place?’ Austin group’s push to end youth homelessness

Client housing provided by LifeWorks in Austin
Client housing provided by LifeWorks in Austin (Courtesy LifeWorks)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – LifeWorks, a non-profit organization in Austin, made innovative changes to its programs to combat COVID-19 in its push to end youth homelessness.

“Already before COVID, we were supporting a population that has a lot of resilience and experienced a lot of traumas… prior to COVID we had been on a high cadence of housing,” LifeWorks Executive Officer Susan McDowell said, adding the organization helps clients search for permanent housing, does street outreach, provides emergency housing and many other services.         

In 2020 alone, LifeWorks served more than 900 clients in the housing and development sector. It provided counseling services to over 1,700 people, too.

“We believe that everybody deserves a place to call home. We also believe that everybody deserves a chance to heal. We offer a lot of counseling programs. And that everybody deserves to learn and work, so we provide educational services and workforce development,” McDowell said.

The organization moved to meet youth where their needs were, while making adjustments for safety such as social distancing, creating a new schedule and moving some services to another area of their building.

“During COVID we thought, ‘first of all, this place has to be about twice as big as it usually is for social distancing and to stay safe.’ Also, we transitioned it primarily to basic needs and crisis support,” McDowell said.

How do you shelter in place when you don’t even have a place?”

“Unfortunately we have a lot of youth who are experiencing homelessness — who are, you know, camping, or they are packed tight, 10 to an apartment with a tenuous rent situation. In that sense, not a lot changed except that the resources available to them diminished,” McDowell said.

Not only was LifeWorks dealing with a new medical vulnerability, but also a long-existing housing vulnerability. The struggle of finding affordable housing in Austin was heightened amid the pandemic.

LifeWorks organization housing provided to youth experiencing homlessness
Housing provided for those experiencing homelessness by LifeWorks (Courtesy LifeWorks)

“The greatest challenge we’re probably seeing right now is just the availability of affordable housing because, you know, that’s something that has not changed,” McDowell said. “And, during COVID it was even more crowded and more competitive to get.”

Despite the large obstacles this past year, 82% of the 384-homeless youth who found homes in 2020 were housed through the LifeWorks program.

“We, during COVID, have moved more than 300 youth to permanent housing — so how do you do that right? We had to get super creative in how we received furniture donations and move those into apartments, how we helped youth even look for apartments with social distancing, using virtual services,” McDowell said.

Finding work

LifeWorks’ clients’ already-present struggles with entering the workplace were amplified as companies let go of employees in the pandemic. Many of the entry-level jobs LifeWorks’ clients searched for also went away in the pandemic. For example, many restaurants were closed and services were moved to online forms. Job positions and opportunities were no longer in large supply.

LifeWorks serves clients experiencing homelessness through programs and educational services to help people navigate through their job search:

  • Workforce Development: trains individuals to be more productive and prosperous in the workplace, which benefits employers and employees
  • Life Skills Training: provides a substance abuse and violence prevention program
  • GED & Literacy: helps aquire General Equivalency diploma and reading skills
  • Teen Parent Services: provides parenting education to parents
  • REAL Talk: teaches skills to avoid risky behaviors, promote health and reduce risks of unplanned pregnancies and STDs

Supporting youth in other ways

McDowell said LifeWorks pivoted toward technology so youth could get help.

“We made a lot of technology available so youth could engage with us on phones, on Chromebooks, you name it,” McDowell said. “And one of our peer support specialists started doing a yoga class for her clients just for relaxation.”

Classroom-style course for those experiencing homelessness
Classroom-style course for those experiencing homelessness (Courtesy LifeWorks)

The organization even set up free vaccination sites without requiring any appointments or documentation. LifeWorks teamed up with Austin Public Health for an afternoon of complimentary food, drink and a COVID-19 vaccination.

“Our youth being so explicitly vulnerable medically, economically and just in terms of the trauma they have already been through, we really had to pay a lot of attention and heart to how they were experiencing the pandemic — which was pretty different than folks who had employment and who had stable housing and could count on some runway of support,” McDowell said.

Amid the pandemic were other moments where LifeWorks stepped up. LifeWorks tweeted during the February storm that its Cold Weather Shelter Center would be housing those experiencing homelessness. It’s also continuing forward in response to the recent camping bans in Austin. Phase three of the initiative has begun, which allows officers to make arrests for violations when people experiencing homelessness refuse to leave an area that has been deemed dangerous.

2020 Data form LifeWorks
2020 outreach numbers from Julianne Hanckel at LifeWorks

“And with all of the anxiety about homelessness in Austin, all of the frustration that people are saying, we are quietly, you know, developing and implementing a solution that is having tremendous impact. Since October of 2018, we have put about 850 youth in permanent housing.” McDowell said, “We are getting it done with youth homelessness and are really right now a national model in our efforts to do this.”

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