Housing for the homeless: We’re waiting.

By Emily Seales
Case Management Supervisor
Speaking to UUMC and Austin Interfaith

Thank you for taking the time to be here today – to learn more, to support people experiencing homelessness, and to come together to discuss principles to help guide our community leaders to better serve our homeless neighbors.

I am a member of University United Methodist Church, an occasional volunteer at Open Door and currently work full time as a social worker at Trinity Center.

I first became involved in homelessness while volunteering in a soup kitchen in 1998 while in college in Nashville. After completing a Master’s Degree in social work, my first job was in 2003, connecting homeless adults with severe mental illness to the local mental health clinic in Chapel Hill, NC.

I then spent five years working for the Veterans Affairs homeless programs in Durham, NC, Tampa, FL and Washington D.C.  I worked in an outreach capacity, overseeing transitional housing grants, and in permanent supportive housing through the VASH program.   In Durham, Tampa, and DC, I was involved in local homeless coalitions and the local continuum of care.

When Chad and I arrived in Austin in 2011, we joined UUMC in part because of the strong emphasis on social justice and the work we do here to help people experiencing homelessness. While raising 3 young children, I stayed involved the best I could through volunteering at Open Door and keeping a pulse on homelessness in Austin.

In the spring of 2018, I applied on a whim to the Trinity Center, a day resource center downtown, located directly across the parking lot from both the ARCH and the Salvation Army and a stone’s throw from Caritas. Although I didn’t feel completely ready to work again, maybe it was a God-thing or possibly seven years of sleep deprivation, but I truly knew that Trinity Center was exactly where I needed to be.

Since May of 2018, I have served as the Case Management Supervisor at Trinity Center, overseeing our case management team, working with a small caseload of individuals, and advocating on behalf of the homeless community.

For those who may not be familiar with Trinity Center, it was started 20 years ago by a group of passionate and concerned parishioners at St. David’s Episcopal Church.  Trinity Center was based on the model of radical hospitality and was the first agency or group to refer to people experiencing homelessness as “neighbors” — because that is exactly who they are.

We are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. offering breakfast, snacks, clothing and showers for women, assistance with obtaining IDs, driver’s licenses and birth certificates. We also are a navigation center for several partner agencies, including ECHO, Integral Care, Communities for Recovery, the VA, SNAP and MAP.  We keep mail for approximately 800 individuals and store people’s most important documents in our vital records document bank.  We have a church service, meal and free medical clinical every Sunday.

Our case management program is intensive, person-centered and strengths based.  Our case managers meet with clients weekly and work together with them toward goals related to self-care, financial stability and housing.  We assist clients in applying for Social Security benefits, including SSI and SSDI, through a special model designed specifically for people who are homeless.

In case management, we partner with medical and mental health providers, education and employment programs, shelters, housing programs, numerous faith-based groups and many other agencies.  Much of what we do as case managers is to serve as advocates for our clients to navigate very complicated systems. The systems are set up in a way that without the help of a case manager or knowledgeable advocate, it is nearly impossible to reach goals and move out of homelessness, especially chronic homelessness.

From my varied experiences working in homelessness, the greatest gift I have been given is the relationships that I make with individuals. Through my work, neighbors share with me their struggles and challenges, and I am witness to their strength and resiliency.

I work with people who are experiencing homelessness for the very first time, people who have been homeless for years or even decades, people who have had tremendous loss, people who have experienced unimaginable trauma, people who have no family, people with severe mental illness, people with chronic and debilitating physical conditions, people with developmental disabilities, people who grew up in foster care or have just aged out of foster care, people who have just lost a job, and people with complicated legal backgrounds in part due to the criminalization of homelessness and people who self-medicate with substances.  The stories are widely varied and all unique.

I offer this background, to give some context to what I now see in Austin.  Austin, by far, does the least to support our neighbors of any city I’ve worked in. I am taken aback by the lack of resources in Austin. Our shelters remain full and with long waiting lists.  The ARCH no longer provides day services or day sleep for women.  This includes use of bathrooms and storage lockers. Only the 130 male clients on case management at the ARCH can access any of the day services.  The Salvation Army also remains full and often exists people from the shelters right back onto the street without a plan for housing.

The Permanent Supportive Housing programs, which we so desperately need more of, provides housing and intensive support to chronically homeless individuals with disabilities. Chronically homeless as defined by HUD is 12 consecutive months of homelessness or 4 episodes in 3 years, totaling 12 months.  However, as much as we talk about this program, so far in Austin this year only 38 non-veterans have been housed through PSH, and everyone on that list has been homeless for over 2 years.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands waiting for PSH in Austin.

Community First Village, although a wonderful place for many and a great partner with Trinity Center, requires that a person be chronically homeless in Travis County before a person can even apply to live there. After applying, waits for an interview average 10 more months, meaning a person could easily wait 22 months to live at the Village.

Earlier I spoke about helping clients who are disabled apply for Social Security Benefits. The application and review process for SSI/SSDI can easily be 6 months to over a year, and even if awarded SSI, individuals only receive $771 per month.  If the person was receiving SNAP or food stamp benefits, the amount then drops to $16 per month.

So a single disabled adult in Austin is expected to live on $800 per month. This is the equivalent of making less than $5 per hour.  It is impossible to be disabled and low income in Austin and live in housing that is not subsidized.  The Housing Authority of the City of Austin also has extremely long waiting lists and processes that can be nearly impossible to navigate if disabled.  Our systems in Austin, at least to me, feel broken.  And it is the most vulnerable who continue to suffer.

I’d like to close with a brief story of a client we work with at Trinity Center. I will call him Bill. He came to Austin in January of 2019. Bill, who was once a truck driver, suffered a series of strokes which left him unable to work.  Due to the strokes, Bill has difficulty regulating his emotions and expressing himself verbally. He often cannot find the right words and he is unable to say numbers at all.  He eventually found his way to Austin and to the Trinity center.

We immediately helped connect him with healthcare and SNAP benefits.  Due to difficulty in communicating and not being comfortable in large groups, Bill, is not comfortable sleeping in a shelter.  He sleeps outside in a tent.  Until last week he slept close to downtown where he felt fairly safe and near churches, the Trinity Center and the library.  However as a result of the ordinance changing, Bill, has now moved into a wooded area.

With our help, he was awarded SSI and Medicaid this summer. Bill would love to have his own apartment or home.  However, because he is doesn’t meet the definition of chronically homeless, he must wait until January to even apply to live at Community First Village.  So we continue to meet with Bill every week.  We wait. Alongside him, we wait for something good to happen, for something to go in his favor.

Bill is doing every single thing he can do to not be homeless, yet in Austin we are unable to meet his needs.  Everyday when he leaves the Trinity Center, he tells me to be safe. And I tell him the same thing.  Never before in any other city have I told a client repeatedly to stay safe, to stay warm, to stay cool, to stay hydrated in hopes of them simply surviving while they wait for us to figure out a better plan.

It’s time. I’m tired of waiting. Bill and about 8,000 others are tired of waiting. Let’s come together to encourage our community, our city council, our Mayor and our Governor to provide our neighbors the basic human right of shelter and a home.