On the Record with Diane Holloway: Fighting Homelessness this Holiday Season

[This entry was originally written by Diane Holloway, a Trinity Center volunteer, for her ongoing blog with the Travis County Democratic Party. To view the original post, please visit the Travis County Democratic Party’s page by clicking here.]

On the Record with Diane Holloway: Fighting Homelessness this Holiday Season

This year’s TCDP & OFA Holiday Party on December 15 has a dual purpose: provide an evening of good cheer and help Trinity Center care for the people in Austin who need us most. As Democrats, we believe in helping the poor, and we hope that our holiday cheer should have a deeper meaning.

So please consider helping to fulfill Trinity Center’s simple wish list: jackets or sweatshirts, knit hats and gloves, socks and new or gently used sleeping bags. Don’t have time to shop? Just make out a check to Trinity Center. Donations can be dropped off at the TCDP office or brought to the party.

Trinity Center is a small-budget charity launched with funds from the Barbara Jordan Foundation and with the guiding hands of longtime Democratic activists, Diana and Doug Bell. The Center provides breakfast, clothing, computer training, counseling and other basic services to thousands of people every year.

iritSince 2010, the Center’s Executive Director has been Irit Umani, a self-described “Buddhist Jew from Israel by way of Berkeley.” For nearly 20 years, Umani has led organizations working with survivors of domestic violence. She says her work stems from a spiritual commitment to service, and she also believes in progressive politics that hold that government should care for its people.

QUESTION: What was your first impression of Austin’s homeless situation after you arrived from Berkeley? More than you expected?

UMANI: Homeless people tend to go to places where the weather is warmer, so the numbers did not surprise me. It feels like the solution is known here and there’s a lot of willingness, but the government is not prioritizing by putting it in the budget. Austin has talked about ending homelessness in 10 years, but quite a few of the 10 years have already come and gone, and I’m not seeing the action.

QUESTION: Why do you think that is?

UMANI: We don’t want to see these people in front of us, so we are fast to judge them and fast to assign them to the legal system. So we often wind up housing them in ERs and prisons, which is the most expensive and unrealistic way to go about solving the problem. It’s very shortsighted. Whenever we slash the budgets, we slash the lives of poor people. We take the people who suffer the most and put them even further into poverty.

QUESTION: Since the economic crisis has hit Texas, have you seen an increase in the number of people needing service?

UMANI: Yes, we are seeing more waiting on line at Trinity. It’s a substantial increase. We are at capacity because of the size of our space, so we have to turn people away. It’s heartbreaking. We give basic assistance – breakfast, financial assistance for prescription drugs and ID and some case management. It’s a far cry from what is needed. It’s sad that this happens in the richest country on earth. And the more we wait to address it, the bigger the problem, because more people are added to it.

QUESTION: I know from volunteering that a little goes a long way at Trinity. A new pair of socks or a sweater can make a huge difference. Tell us a little bit about what the Center can do with wish-list donations from the holiday party.

UMANI: We are very prudent and operate on about $300,000 a year with a staff of only four plus lots of volunteers. Imagine living outdoors — under bridges, on the streets and in encampments — in these temperatures in the winter. Every year we have people die from freezing to death. So people are asking for sleeping bags, sweatshirts and jackets … things that can literally mean the difference between life and death.

QUESTION: Aside from the obvious lack of jobs and thus housing, what is needed to solve the growing problem of homelessness?

UMANI: We need permanent supportive housing, which means housing that comes with services such as health care and social workers. The other is dealing with the mentally ill. How come there is this woman who is very well known to all government agencies — the police, mental health and health-care professionals — who sleeps on a sidewalk under a blanket with no clothes on? And nothing is done. You know who I’m talking about, and it’s terrible.

As a member of society, my sense is shame on us! To see the width and depth of the divide and the number of people society allows to live on the streets is shameful. We need creative solutions. It takes a village for any social problem to be solved. At Trinity, we just hope everyone will pitch in a little bit and be thankful for what we have and try to make this a better society through good politics, good hearts and social activism.