A Transition Made Possible

October 31, 2016

Rebecca has a college education, a great job in the legal field, and a duplex with her youngest daughter. It’s hard to believe that just a year ago she was homeless.

An Austin native, Rebecca was struggling to pay for college and decided to join the Army as a means to have her education underwritten in the 1980s. She was stationed at Fort Bragg and worked in Communications, spending two years deployed in Seoul, South Korea.

Rebecca said she never wanted to be stagnant. She was constantly taking classes toward her degree during her military service. While in the Army, she also got married and had her first baby. After nearly five years of active duty, Rebecca decided to transition to a career in government.

“I’ve always liked having a direct effect on state and local government,” she says of her career. Though Rebecca divorced and was a single mom of four, she always remained stable.

Two years ago, her stability took a turn when she moved to west Texas for what eventually became an abusive relationship. Early this year, Rebecca found the strength to leave. She came back to Austin, but she had nothing. She was homeless and without a job.

“It was so scary. I knew it was temporary and that I just needed to find a job, but I had no resources.”

She first went to the VA for help, who referred her to Caritas of Austin’s veteran program.

Rebecca focused her time on applying for jobs but was also just trying to meet her basic needs. She said it was hard sleeping different places each night, not having food, being separated from her youngest daughter, and having to board her dog.

Then Caritas of Austin called. “I started bawling. After that call, the wheels started rolling.”

Rebecca started a new job in May working in the legal field, which she loves. Caritas of Austin provided a financial bridge which helped her move her possessions out of storage, cover her first month and a half of rent before she got her first paycheck, and pay for outstanding utility debt that was preventing her from obtaining stable housing.

She also relied on the Caritas Pantry for food and toiletries in her transition period. “The Pantry was big for me. Caritas was one of the better places I could go to get quality food and toiletries.”

Rebecca can’t hold back the tears when talking about her case manager. “Maegan treated me with respect and dignity. She was kind, professional, caring, and available. There are people who come into your life for a short time but that you will never forget. She is one of them. We should have more Maegan’s in the world.”

She says Caritas of Austin gave her hope when she had none. “This agency has been the biggest blessing for me.”

Rebecca and her family are now closer than ever after the past two years of struggle. “My kids were so proud to watch me work my butt off to get back to where I am now.”

Because of you, Caritas of Austin has supported Rebecca and 220 other veteran families over the past two years in the goal to end veteran homelessness. Thank you!

 

On The Road To Success With The Austin Yellow Bike Project

October 6, 2016

Mike, an Employment Specialist at Caritas of Austin, can think of many ways that not having access to consistent transportation impacts his clients as they look for a job.

“They may be late to appointments with their case manager or miss classes. But the greatest impact is when they start working because punctuality is essential.”

The majority of Caritas of Austin clients do not have cars, and rely on public transportation to get to work. As Mike points out, if the bus is not running on schedule it can impact their clients’ ability to find and sustain employment. Relying solely on public transportation can also prevent clients from finding jobs that pay better, or are more suited to their skill set. 

Local nonprofit The Austin Yellow Bike Project (YBP) recognizes this problem and aims to put bicycles on the streets of Austin to combat some of the major challenges our city faces in regards to public transportation. In addition to donating bikes to those who need them, YBP also teaches bike maintenance so that their riders can get the most use out of them. 

Last year, YBP was struggling to figure out how exactly to get bikes to people who needed them. At the same time, Caritas of Austin was looking for a partner to assist them with finding bikes for clients so that they could achieve a degree of independence. YBP volunteer, Conti, describes their relationship with Caritas as that of a matchmaker, with YBP bikes being connected with Caritas of Austin clients who need them the most.

“We see bikes as a tool for self-sufficiency, so we couldn't be happier that Caritas recognizes that value,” Conti says of YBP and Caritas’ similar missions in empowering others. 

One year later, YBP now donates at least ten bikes a month to Caritas of Austin clients. They also provide any bike accessories that clients may need such as lights and bike locks. Caritas’ Employment Team even visited YBP onsite to learn more about bike maintenance and repair, so that they can share that knowledge with clients.

Both Caritas of Austin and YBP understand what having one's own personal form of transportation can mean for a person’s independence. Caritas Employment Specialist, Ghassan, tells a story of one client spending two hours riding the bus to and from work every day before he got a bike. “Having a bike gives him an option to go to work unbound by someone else’s schedule,” Ghassan says.

Conti is also inspired by how the relationship between YBP and Caritas of Austin is changing lives. “It's really the best,” she says. “We've heard about bikes putting smiles on children's faces. We've heard about bikes that meant transportation to meant jobs that otherwise wouldn't have been. Every one of those stories is tough to beat.”

Caritas of Austin’s partnership with The Yellow Bike Project has impacted lives in positive ways that no one involved could have anticipated. It is another reminder of what wonderful things can happen when different community organizations come together with a common goal. Thanks to The Austin Yellow Bike Project, more Caritas clients are on their way to finding employment and independence, and are achieving self-sufficiency!

 

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. 

 

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.

 

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!