Redefining Success: Empowerment and Wellbeing

September 27, 2016

Years of homelessness causes people to devalue their lives. They no longer believe they have worth or even deserve the support of people or organizations like Caritas of Austin.

“I had really gotten to the point where I did not care if I lived anymore,” said housing client Clay.

Having stable housing can have an incredible impact on those views. 

“When I first got an apartment with Caritas, it didn’t feel real. When someone gives you a chance to rebuild your life, that is special,” said former client Hugh.

It is a long road and takes a lot of hard work to remain stable in housing, address health and sobriety, and finally deal with trauma and loss experienced. But once they do, individuals in Supportive Housing begin to see their future, and not just dwell on the past.

“Some might think people just need housing and a job and they should be on their way. It’s so much more than that and it takes a long time to get to a point of wellbeing and empowerment. When I hear clients begin to talk about their future, I know we have come a long way. That might take two years though,” said case manager Johanna.

Looking forward, individuals are able to pursue old and new interests and hobbies.

“It breaks my heart when I ask clients what makes them happy, and they have no idea,” said case manager Becky.

The Caritas of Austin team coordinates a walking group, art club, music jam sessions for clients. “Clients love it. It gives them a chance to relax and create,” said Johanna. For individuals whose health allows them to work, case managers and Caritas’ Employment team work to help them obtain employment or go back to school.

Clay, a supportive housing client, worked all of his life before becoming homeless. Since being housed, he has gotten back to work doing a job he loves. “I love it. I love interacting with people. It makes me feel important, like I matter,” he said.

I have several clients who have gotten jobs they really enjoy. And others choose to go back to school and pursue education. It makes me happy to see how far they’ve come. The little steps and goals accomplished empower them to do the bigger things. They see that others believe in them and they finally start to believe in themselves,” explained Becky.

“They did it for themselves,” added Johanna. “We are just here to help. They always want to give us credit, but we turn it back to them. It’s amazing to see, and it’s why we stay doing this work.”

The journey out of homelessness is long, hard, and unique for each individual. Success is not measured just by getting a job and successfully transitioning out of Caritas’ Supportive Housing program.

It is experienced in countless ways. Success is being sober for one week, or one year. It is taking medication to manage high blood pressure. It is attending a therapy appointment. It is cutting off unhealthy relationships. It is reconnecting to the things you love. It is valuing your own life. It is believing you have something to contribute to this world.

Your support of Caritas of Austin enables this journey for many of our community’s most vulnerable members. Thank you for your belief in this work – you are helping individuals reach self-sufficiency and the countless steps toward success along the way! 


Redefining Success: Social Connection

 September 9, 2016

Relationships are woven throughout our lives, and they play an important role in homelessness.

Many people who have experienced homelessness say they had no one left to turn to in their time of need. Some burned bridges with those closest to them. The paradox is that homelessness can bring about a sense of isolation, and yet, there is a very strong sense of social connection found there.

“There are strong bonds among people who are experiencing homelessness. They are surviving and need to rely on each other,” explained Johanna, Supportive Housing case manager. “But on the other hand, they are constantly worried about others stealing from them and using them. It’s not always healthy, but they really do take care of each other.”

“I went into savage behavior… I was in survival mode,” said, Adrienne, who was homeless for eight years. “People get aggressive with their territory and belongings.”

When moving into stable housing, many feel freedom in separating themselves from others. “To get my own place allowed me to be away from people and behavior I was susceptible to,” said client Ted.

But others experience an increased sense of isolation once housed. They may even revert back to homelessness because it is the only community they know.

On the journey from surviving to thriving, developing healthy social connection is a big milestone.

We focus on teaching clients about healthy relationships.  Even though they have little, the people we work with are so generous, sometimes to a fault. We have to work on setting boundaries and assessing what relationships are beneficial,” added Johanna.

As individuals utilize Caritas of Austin’s Therapist to work through past trauma and reflect on past or present relationships, many begin to have a desire to rebuild some connections.

While homeless, Adrienne lost touch with her children for years. During her time with Caritas of Austin, she has been able to rebuild those relationships and now talks to her son every Saturday.

Caritas staff members also work hard to develop community among their clients. They hold activities like art club and walking group, host group holiday dinners, and even come together in the saddest of times.

“We hold a memorial for any one of our clients who passes away. To know that they had a place to call home and people who cared about them is such a gift despite sad circumstances. We just had a gentleman who passed away. He had recently reconnected with his daughter after 20 years, and at the memorial service we held for him, his family from all over the country came to celebrate his life. That is incredible,” Johanna said, tearing up.

Whether it’s finding peace in past relationships, developing a new idea of healthy relationships, or finding lifelong friendships, one of the most valuable things Caritas staff can do for people is to help rebuild a support system. After all, the people who love us help sustain all of us through life’s good and difficult times.

Our next and final edition of Redefining Success will focus on wellbeing, what it means and how people get there. 


Turning A Job Into A Dream

August 24, 2016

Magaly learned to cook at a young age from her parents and grandfather. She has always loved the rich flavors in Cuban food. “The seasonings in Cuban food are beautiful,” she said.

Magaly owned her own restaurant in Cuba but had to rebuild her life when resettling in Austin in 2015. She dreamt of one day becoming a restaurant owner again in her new home.

 “Mike, my Employment Specialist, is the best. The first thing he did was listen to me. He heard my dream and has been so dedicated to making it possible,” Magaly said.

Caritas of Austin’s employment team helped Magaly get her first job as a cook at Habana Austin, a local Cuban restaurant. There she learned what types of food Austinites really liked. On her days off, she worked a second job in construction to save enough money to purchase a trailer in order to open her own food truck.

The Caritas team connected Magaly to the chef who teaches Caritas’ Food Industry Employment Training classes. Chef Victor has become a mentor to Magaly and helped her navigate the licensing and permitting process for opening a food truck. With your past support, Caritas was able to help Magaly purchase her grill, knives, and other cooking supplies for the trailer as well as cover the cost of permitting, license, and her initial food purchases.

“Without Caritas, I would not have been able to do any of this,” she said.

This June, Magaly opened her food truck, “La Cubanita”, in Round Rock. The truck operates in two locations, one of which is a stone yard where truck drivers welcome an authentic food option in an otherwise sparse area. 

 Her most popular item on the menu is a traditional pork sandwich called “pan con puerco asado”. At any hour of the day, there are people lined up to get a taste of Magaly’s Cuban cuisine.

She said her ultimate dream is to open a brick and mortar restaurant in the Austin area. For now though, she is ecstatic to be sharing her food with others.

“I cannot say enough about Caritas. They are great people who have been so persistent in helping me get to where I want to be,” said Magaly.

Your support is helping people find careers they love across all industries including hospitality and food, healthcare, manufacturing, and technology.  You are turning jobs into careers and empowering a path to lasting self-sufficiency for hundreds of individuals each year. Thank you!

Redefining Success: Sobriety

 August 16, 2016

 In our efforts to have a more authentic conversation about homelessness, we do not want to shy away from difficult topics. We hear often from community members that they see homeless individuals drinking and using illegal substances. That they should be more responsible if they want to change their situation. Or that they do not deserve to be housed until they get sober.

Caritas of Austin’s 10 years of experience in Permanent Supportive Housing has validated that the opposite is actually true: It is extremely difficult to get and remain sober until housing is first stabilized.

Supportive Housing client, Adrienne, said she used alcohol to numb her from the trauma and fear that goes with being homeless. “Homelessness is hell. It sucks you in and it’s really hard to get out of.

“Can you imagine what it would take for you to fall asleep on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk?” said case manager Becky, reflecting on the use of alcohol and substances while living on the streets.

Addressing substance use and abuse is always a priority for case managers, but one that can be a long, challenging process with ongoing setbacks.

“If someone has been homeless and self-medicating for 20 years, it’s unrealistic to think that a simple 30-day program will fix everything. It is really, really hard,” Becky added.

An important sign of progress is people seeing their substance use as problematic. As their life begins to stabilize in Supportive Housing, individuals see how alcohol and drugs negatively impact their new life path and goals.

Former client, French, said it was his children and his desire to build a stronger relationship with them that motivated him to get sober. After four years of sobriety, he says, “I am tickled every time I think about the fact that I have accomplished it.”

Becky says her work, in collaboration with Caritas’ Therapist, helps clients uncover the emotions behind turning to alcohol or drugs. “We work through what’s really behind it and start to develop healthier ways to cope with things.”

Caritas of Austin helps connect individuals to local support groups and has some grant funding to refer people to in- or outpatient rehabilitation facilities. Additional community support could help expand Caritas’ services to help promote sobriety.

French completed the 12-step program through Alcoholics Anonymous after being stably housed, and now he proudly serves as a sponsor along with volunteering daily at his local group. His long-term goal is to become a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor to help others find the victory he has.

Adrienne was able to complete a rehabilitation program on her journey toward sobriety. “I don’t have that emptiness anymore,” she said. She has been sober for a year and four months and is now focused on eating healthier and being more active. “You have to believe your life is worth it,” she added.

At Caritas of Austin, we believe that substance use is not always the root cause of homelessness; in fact, it is often a byproduct of the trauma of someone who has experienced homelessness.

The path to sobriety is difficult for any person, regardless of demographics, but especially so with the compounding issues faced by people who have been homeless. Every single small step toward sobriety is one to be celebrated as progress. Next in Redefining Success, we will discuss social connection.


Refugee Wins National Employee of the Year Award

 June 15, 2016

 When Pa Lung started working at the DoubleTree Austin Hotel in 2007, he had no idea he was part of something very special. Pa fled his home country of Burma and came to Austin as a refugee in April of that year. He was going to school before leaving Burma, so he lacked the job experience needed to gain employment in the United States.

Around the same time, Caritas’ Employment team was exploring potential partnerships with local hotels as a platform to employee refugee clients. They approached the DoubleTree Austin Hotel about a pilot effort. Melissa Daniel, Director of Human Resources for the DoubleTree Austin Hotel, was finding recruiting for entry level positions to be challenging, which made her open to a potential partnership with Caritas of Austin.

“We were apprehensive about working with individuals who spoke almost no English and who had minimal cultural exposure to the United States, but with the promise of support from Caritas, we made the decision to hire 10 Burmese associates to work in housekeeping, the restaurant, and the kitchen,” said Daniel.

Pa was one of those first 10. Nine years later, he is now a banquet chef at the hotel and was recently awarded the Sage Hospitality Associate of the Year Award. Sage Hospitality is the DoubleTree’s management company, and Pa was selected out of nearly 6,000 associates nationwide.

“When I was hired in the kitchen, I didn’t know anything,” said Lung. “I started learning to cut vegetables, then to grill, and eventually to cook.”

Daniel nominated Pa Lung for this award, noting that he excels in caring for team members, guests, and the community. “Pa Lung lives by these values every day. He is very supportive of his team mates, in the kitchen, and with Burmese associates throughout the hotel. He delivers excellence in the product he prepares for guests, and he is a devoted leader in the Burmese community in Austin.

“I was very surprised to get the award,” said Lung. “I cannot even describe how happy it made me. I came here as a refugee with nothing, and my co-workers and managers have been so good to me.”

Since the placement of those first refugee clients, Caritas of Austin has built a robust in-house training and job placement program for the hospitality industry. Today, the industry makes up 30% of Caritas’ job placements.

 Daniel said the partnership has been a win/win. “It has been an experience that has benefited every aspect of our business. The diversity this program has brought to our team has been culturally enriching. Watching newly arrived refugees go from low income housing to buying cars and homes has been inspirational. It is wonderful that we are able to help the community by providing jobs, training and growth opportunities while supporting our business with quality and engaged associates.”

Pa Lung does his part to encourage newly arriving refugees that they can have the same success he has. “I tell them just to work hard, don’t feel down, and you can be successful too.”

Redefining Success: Housing is Healthcare

 August 2, 2016

 Homelessness is complex. The reasons a person becomes homeless are as multi-layered as the path out of homelessness. Our hope with this new blog series, Redefining Success, is to help the community better understand this complex journey.

While many think it’s as simple as getting someone housing and a job, we know that is far from true. Success involves a hundred small steps forward, and many steps backward in the process. We want to celebrate the many important milestones we see individuals take as they regain their lives and stability.

It may sound dramatic, but people in Austin are literally dying on the streets because of homelessness. Last year, 171 homeless individuals died. This is often a direct result of not accessing or having access to health care.

A lack of life structure, health insurance, and health knowledge cause most people experiencing homelessness to use the emergency room as their only form of health care. This is not only incredibly expensive to the community; it is the poorest way to maintain health because of its reactive nature.

Caritas of Austin’s Supportive Housing team knows this truth: housing is healthcare. Not until someone is stable in housing can they effectively begin to manage their health.

“It’s not unusual for someone who has experienced long-term homelessness to have not had medical care in years. It is hard to see the devastating effects on the body. When we start the process, it’s like a gauntlet… there’s just so much to be done,” explained Johanna, Caritas of Austin case manager.

Some of the most common physical health conditions seen are Hepatitis C, diabetes, high blood pressure, and major dental issues. Many also have undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues. Progress begins with case managers setting appointments and attending them with clients.

“After living a life with little structure, just making an appointment is really hard. We have to remind clients, take them to their appointments, print out calendars, and sometimes it still doesn’t happen, at first,” said Johanna.

Since being housed with Caritas of Austin in January, Ted has connected to Veterans Administration benefits for the first time in over 40 years. He will soon have a long-overdue hip surgery. He has also gotten glasses and much needed dental work. Because he was not able to access proper health care for many years, he is in the process of having all of his teeth pulled in order to get implants.

“Getting my teeth pulled is a big deal, but I view it all as a blessing,” said Ted. Over time, clients begin scheduling and attending appointments on their own. They see the benefits of maintaining their health in a proactive way.

Case manager Becky said this is a big step forward. “It makes me so happy and proud to see clients taking charge. It shows that they actually care about their health. They see the benefits, and they don’t want to get behind and go back to feeling bad.”

Many clients come to realize how bad their health really was. “I probably would have died on the streets if I hadn’t gotten into housing,” said Clay, Supportive Housing client.

“Health care is the first thing we address with clients. It’s so important, and we have to focus on it before we can work on other things,” added Becky. Next in Redefining Success, we will have an honest discussion about one of the most complex facets of progress: sobriety.