The Truth About Homelessness: Causes, Statistics, and Misconceptions (Part 1)

July 18, 2013 by Jo Kathryn Quinn, Executive Director

Recognizing Austin has a problem with homelessness is obvious. Whether you live downtown or not we are all faced with the “guy on the corner with a sign” on a daily basis. Someone who is experiencing homelessness is someone who lives in a place not meant for human habitation; this includes a homeless shelter. By the numbers, according to the 2013 Point in Time count, there are Homeless downtown blurred 2,121 people experiencing homelessness on any given day in Travis County. This is kind of good news since this number is down from the 2011 number of 2,568. Keep in mind-- this number is only a snapshot in time. This count is made literally by people going out onto the streets and in the shelters manually counting people that are homeless on a particular day – the third week of January every year. Over the course of a year 12,000+ people received homeless services.

You may be thinking…“This problem is so overwhelming; why are people are homeless”? The answer to why people become homeless is as varied as the people having this experience; at the same time there are just a few common structural reasons why it is relatively easy for someone to become homeless:

Lack of affordable housing – The 2011 American Community Survey shows that 25% of renters in Travis County are paying 50% or more of their monthly income for rent. When someone is paying such a disproportionate amount of their income for housing, they are constantly at risk of homelessness. Any emergency need in their household can mean they can’t pay rent.

Poverty – This one is obvious, but usually not completely understood. Simply put, there are many people in our community that are just too poor to afford housing of any kind. Frankly, there’s not an immediate recognition in Austin that the community has a significant number of people experiencing poverty – 36% of us cannot meet basic needs. And if your response to this is “just get a job”, it is important to know that most of this 36% has a job, and they still can’t afford housing.

Inadequate mental health services for the poor – Many people cannot afford mental health care or any health care for that matter. If you can’t treat your mental illness, it drastically undermines your ability to get and keep employment. The same is true for substance abuse services.

The assumption that most people who are homeless want to live that lifestyle is just not true. 1 of 8 homeless women report being raped, 100% of people report going hungry while homeless, and 41% get their property stolen. These statistics don’t really support the myth that people LIKE living this way. While there are those who for a time enjoy the freedom of little responsibility; the overwhelming majority of folks on the streets don’t want to be there.

Caritas’ job then is to counterbalance these structural barriers that lead to cycles of poverty and homelessness.

• We must work to ensure there are affordable housing options.

• We must help people access and maintain employment opportunities that allow them to cover all necessary expenses.

• And we must address the mental health needs of people experiencing homelessness on their path to self-reliance.

As I mentioned, the problem of homelessness is a daunting one filled with many barriers. Caritas has been committed to solutions for nearly 50 years. We must fight homelessness both on the ground level one client at a time and also at a structural level to truly change the systemic problems leading to poverty and homelessness. Also, we must use the right tools. Caritas uses only evidence-based practices—techniques that have been proven to reduce the numbers of homeless in communities. And we need your help. Our entire community must get involved if we truly want to eliminate homelessness. Will you join us?

This article is the first in a 5-part series on homelessness



An Unforgettable Day: Caritas Employee celebrates citizenship at World Refugee Day Celebration

July 1, 2013 by Lindsey Dickson

Zaid at citizenship editedSaturday, June 22 marked a milestone Zaid Yassin has waited for his entire life: he was sworn in as an American citizen after moving to the U.S. six years ago. “It is my dream waiting for this day,” he says. Zaid has worked at Caritas of Austin since 2009 as a Refugee Resettlement Specialist, helping the 500 refugees Caritas serves each year as they transition to life in America.  When serving clients, he uniquely pulls from his experience as an Iraqi refugee forced to flee his home in 2007.

In the early 2000s, Zaid was living a normal life in Iraq. He was pursuing his Master’s degree and had begun a career in accounting and hotel management. In 2003, everything changed. “The war started here and all work stopped,” Zaid said. Because he spoke English, Zaid was able to find a job with the Department of State and eventually began working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as an accountant. Little did he know his allegiance to the United States would soon put his entire family in danger.

In June 2007, Zaid and his family were out running errands when the Iraqi militia attacked his home.  A family member that lived nearby notified Zaid that they would be killed if they returned home. His entire family immediately fled to bordering Syria. Over the next several months, Zaid worked with dozens of government officials and departments desperate to find permanent residence. He was forced to fly his family - wife, son, mother, siblings and their families – to Egypt to reside safely until their refugee status was approved, and he even had to return to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq before receiving final approval. When he received notice in August 2007 that his refugee status was approved and they would be resettled in the United States, Zaid said, “I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”  

Knoxville, Tennessee is an unlikely place for an Iraqi refugee family to resettle. In fact, Zaid and his family were the first-ever Iraqi refugees to live there. With everything left in Iraq and only $425 in government assistance allotted to each family member for resettlement, Zaid’s family was starting with nothing.  “I didn’t tell my family this, but I only had $50 left,” Zaid said. Fortunately local Knoxville church members from Central Baptist Church of Bearden provided additional support: gave them a vehicle, helped with employment and provided a great deal of emotional support during the transition. “They were like family to us,” he said. 

Church welcoming ZaidZaid and family arriving in TN

From Knoxville, Zaid’s family moved to California to reconnect with extended relatives, but with a tough economy, it was difficult to make ends meet. So when an Iraqi friend called Zaid to tell him about a job opportunity with Caritas of Austin helping refugees, he jumped at the chance. The day after his wife gave birth to their second child, Zaid moved with his wife and kids to Texas. When asked about working at Caritas, he says, “I want to give these people the same opportunity and support that I had when I came here. I do more than what is required for new refugees because it makes a difference for them.” 

At Austin’s World Refugee Day celebration on June 22, Zaid and his wife were officially sworn in as U.S. citizens. “I feel like this is my country. I’ve always felt like I should have been born here. I would fight for this country because it has provided for me and given me respect and freedom.”  Zaid’s story is one of resilience and inspiration. With community support, Caritas is able to ensure that, like Zaid and his family, all refugees resettling in Austin have the opportunity to succeed in their new life.





New Outreach Specialists Allow Caritas to Serve Even More People Experiencing Homelessness

 July 1, 2013 by Lindsey Dickson

Caritas now has another channel to reach even more people experiencing homelessness in Austin with two new Outreach and Community Engagement Specialists. While many believe the majority of Austin’s homeless population resides downtown, there are hundreds of less visible people experiencing homelessness in Austin every day. They live in homeless camps, abandoned buildings, cars, and under bridges throughout the city.June 2013 004 edited v2

Many people are wary of downtown; they describe it as too intense with fighting, drug use, and high noise levels. They are also distrustful of service providers and prefer to remain more isolated outside of downtown. With both physical and mental illness highly prevalent in the homeless population, it is critical to work to serve these individuals as part of Caritas’ mission. 

As Caritas’ existing housing programs continue to evolve to best support the community, the need for additional outreach services became clear. In February this year, Caritas hired two new Outreach and Community Engagement Specialists to fill the gap.  “We engage those who aren’t accessing mainstream services. We provide a personal connection which helps link them to resources and assistance that they may not have known about, or may not have been comfortable reaching out for,” says Rebecca Bryant.

Rebecca and Becca head out together each day to meet and interact with people throughout Austin. They bring reusable bags filled with pop-top canned food, water, socks, bus passes, and hygiene items. Their longer-term goal though is for clients to begin envisioning a life beyond homelessness.

July Caritalk - Outreach bags 2

Outreach work takes much time and effort from the Caritas team members. Rebecca explained, “The first goal is to earn the trust of people. You have to build a relationship. Then we can begin to educate them about potential services.” 

The Caritas team celebrated a big milestone as the first person reached through new outreach efforts has officially entered into case management services with Caritas after years of being homeless. Now the Caritas team is working to find this client stable housing in addition to providing food, employment and education services. “Caritas is committed to making homelessness rare, short-term and non-reoccurring, and that means we cannot serve only people who come to us. Our outreach efforts are already proving effective in serving people who are resistant to traditional programs and we will continue to evolve our programs to eliminate homelessness in Austin,” said Caritas of Austin Executive Director Jo Kathryn Quinn.