Caritas North: A Year In Review
We opened the doors of Caritas North one year ago, marking the first major milestone in developing a ‘hub and spoke’ location model. Caritas North marked the first location outside of downtown since the organization was founded in 1964.
By the numbers, here is a snapshot of what’s been accomplished over the past year:
108 new households served
622 client touches across all Caritas of Austin services
5,035 meals provided from 332 Caritas North Pantry visits
A primary goal in opening a north Austin location was to improve accessibility of services for clients. It has been encouraging to hear a resounding ‘yes’ from clients in attending classes and appointments significantly closer to where they live and work. Additionally, the small size and calming environment of Caritas North has been valuable to the people we serve. Formerly homeless individuals, in particular, tell us how much they appreciate not having to go downtown where they used to frequent because that area can be a trigger to past traumatic events.
Offering a second Pantry has been a valued addition for clients who can save a trip downtown to pick up groceries. New classroom space at Caritas North has also allowed us to welcome north Austin neighbors to hold meetings and offer free ESL classes to clients.
While it’s hard to quantify, increased awareness in two specific areas has proven valuable: 1) A high number of walk-ins allows us to educate people about Coordinated Assessment and how to access services if you are experiencing homelessness. 2) Caritas North has also showed the community what we at Caritas of Austin know, that we are more than just a “soup kitchen”.
At our ribbon cutting last April, Executive Director Jo Kathryn Quinn said that her hope is that we become part of the fabric of this neighborhood. Over the past year, our team has built relationships with Austin Police officers in the area, gotten involved with the Restore Rundberg efforts and other neighborhood groups, and done a great deal of outreach with Austin ISD as well as nearby apartment complexes, property owners, and businesses. We strive to be great collaborators and plan to build on these relationships over the next year.
In an unexpected turn of events, Caritas of Austin was presented the opportunity to purchase Northgate Plaza, which houses Caritas North. With the support of Alori Properties and 36 investors, this property was purchased in August. Not only does it provide a sustainable income for Caritas of Austin, but it makes possible our bigger vision for this retail center to eventually house complementary nonprofit organizations to provide additional resources to this neighborhood.
So where do we go from here?
In the near term, we will focus on refining Caritas North as our first ‘spoke’. That includes continuing to grow staff and services at Caritas North, particularly to fill any gaps in services experienced in the first year. We want to expand educational offerings, both to clients and to the community at large. Long term, we remain committed to opening additional neighborhood centers in strategic locations throughout the Austin area. Thank you to the donors, volunteers, investors, and community members who have made Caritas North a success!
National Volunteer Appreciation Week
Happy National Volunteer Appreciation Week! This week we're celebrating hundreds of Caritas of Austin volunteers who gave an amazing 37,349 hours of service last year alone. They prepare and serve meals in our Community Kitchen, work directly with clients on their path to self-sufficiency, support staff members, delivery much-needed donations, and so much more. These volunteers make the work we do possible, and we'd like to share their stories with you.
Ricky Martinez, Community Kitchen Volunteer
This year for Lent, Ricky Martinez decide to dedicate his time to Caritas of Austin by serving in our Community Kitchen once a week. He had already been volunteering for three years but even after Lent, Ricky decided to continue his weekly volunteer service with Caritas of Austin. "I like knowing I'm providing a healthy meal for someone who needs one," Ricky says.
"Another volunteer driver wasn't able to drive anymore...I have been doing it ever since for 22 years."
Our volunteer driver Johnny has been making donation pick-ups possible for 22 years. He got his start with Caritas of Austin when he took over for the former delivery driver. "My most memorable volunteer experience is when people see me unloading the Caritas van and say thank you," Johnny says. Our volunteer delivery drivers make it possible for us to serve lunch in our kitchen, stock our pantry, and deliver much-needed donations to clients.
Luke Martinez, Board Member
"The looks and words of appreciation are very inspiring."
As a Community Kitchen and ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot volunteer and Board member, Luke has been an essential member of the Caritas of Austin family for five years. He is moved by being able to help and touch people's lives, and plays a huge role in Caritas of Austin's work and mission. "So many Austinites are in need and having the ability to touch more than 300 people's lives by helping to prepare and serve feels good," he says.
Anjali uses her Arabic language skills to guide our clients through the refugee process step-by-step. She helps introduce them to life in the United States, including teaching clients (sometimes entire families) how to use public transportation. "It is incredibly rewarding to contribute to an organization like Caritas," Anjali says of her service.
Homelessness State of the Union 2016
I often talk about Caritas of Austin working to make homelessness rare, short-term, and nonrecurring. This is our vision and we remain committed to that.
But are we making progress?
Earlier this month, ECHO published preliminary results of the 2016 Homeless Point- In- Time (PIT) Count. Over the past six years, the number has decreased by 29%.
But this year, that was not the case. Homelessness in our community was up 20% according to the count. As a close supporter, I want us to have an honest discussion about this reality.
A couple of things to know about the PIT Count:
- External factors like weather can impact the number of individuals identified as homeless. This year’s count was cold, increasing the number of people in shelter.
- There were significantly more volunteers this year helping with the PIT count, so it is difficult to know if the number of people experiencing homelessness is up, or if the counting was just more accurate.
Despite this, the truth is our community’s resources are not keeping up with the demand for services. Homelessness is happening more rapidly than we can address it through affordable housing, and this is a trend we are seeing nationally. We must remember that the availability of affordable housing is the most important factor in our ability to end homelessness as we know it.
So, where do we go from here?
The good news is that Caritas of Austin has learned a tremendous amount over the past 10 years of using evidence-based practices to address homelessness. Going forward, we must garner the resources necessary to scale these proven solutions proportionate to the rate at which homelessness is happening.
One inspiring example to demonstrate this truth is what our city has accomplished in ending veteran homelessness. We are incredibly close to achieving that goal, giving us a microcosm of what’s possible when resources are present. From federal housing vouchers for veterans and the mayoral challenge to end veteran homelessness, to the community’s support and Caritas’ work to rapidly rehouse veterans, it is this unified approach that works.
As an agency, we are actively exploring new ways to partner with housing developers to create housing for people with significant housing barriers.
We have also increased advocacy efforts with local and national leaders to bring about systemic change to make it easier to create affordable housing and remove obstacles for people who have housing barriers.
Be assured that every dollar of your support to Caritas of Austin is being put to work to end homelessness in the most effective ways possible. Though it often feels like we are swimming upstream, we are making progress. We have solutions that work, but they are not possible without your support.
Jo Kathryn Quinn, Executive Director
A New Start, A New Career Path
When Onel arrived in Austin last May, he was determined to get on a successful career path with Caritas of Austin’s help.
In Cuba, he worked as an aircraft technician and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Aviation.
“I have never had a client as motivated as Onel has been to further his education and obtain professional certification. From day one, he was willing to do anything it took to go to school,” said Fuad, Onel’s employment specialist at Caritas.
As is the case with many individuals resettling in Austin from around the world, Onel must restart his career from the ground up since most certifications and professional experience do not transfer.
Caritas’ Employment team often works with refugees who were lawyers, doctors, and engineers in their home country. While these individuals may have to find an entry level job to begin with, the Caritas team also supports their transition back into their field of practice through education and certification.
Because of Onel’s professional background, the Caritas team explored various vocational training options to help Onel advance his career in Austin. The Austin Career Institute offers a 4-month HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) program that interested Onel. The program is taught in Spanish and includes an English proficiency component, which was a perfect fit for his needs.
Because of your generosity, Caritas of Austin was able to underwrite Onel’s HVAC certification program. In August, Onel began the program on weekends, and he works in apartment construction and maintenance during the week.
After completing the program, Onel will be able to build on his current job and begin specializing in more technical work. With Austin’s warm climate, HVAC professionals are in very high demand and typically earn a minimum of $15 per hour.
Helping people obtain jobs that earn a living wage is a priority of Caritas’ Employment team, and it takes community employment partners in all industries to open doors to these opportunities.
Fuad said Onel’s enthusiasm to succeed pushed him even further to help him do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals.
Onel said Fuad and other Caritas staff members have been invaluable during his first months in the United States. “They are all wonderful. They have given me much advice and support and helped me get a job I hoped for. All of their services help people get ahead.”
In a year, he hopes to advance both in his professional skills and his English proficiency. He is well on his way thanks to your support of work!
A Veteran Commits To Helping Others
Billy served in the United States Army for three years in the early 1990s. He was among the first troops deployed to Iraq during the Desert Storm War. His primary role in the Army was around refueling helicopters, which put him in the middle of combat.
He said he saw and experienced things that he will never be able to forget.
As is the case with many veterans, Billy had an extremely difficult time when he returned home to Texas. Rather than getting the help he needed to cope with the trauma he experienced, he just tried to block it out. Billy fell into drinking and substance abuse and continued to struggle with it for the next 15 years. He mostly worked in the oil fields, but had a hard time keeping jobs due to his addiction.
“For 15 years, I just hid behind the realities I lived through during the war in Iraq,” he said.
In 2014, Billy hit his lowest point, but is also turned out to be the best thing for his life. He was sentenced to nine months of jail time for theft and drug use. But soon after he began serving time, the first-ever Military Veteran Peer Network program was being implemented in Texas, and Billy was selected to be a part. The six-month program involved PTSD therapy, substance abuse treatment, and peer-to-peer veteran counseling.
“I never got the help I needed after the war. The peer network program really helped me realize my issues and face them.”
When he completed the program, Billy still faced some tough decisions. He decided to stay in the Austin area and get a fresh start rather than return to his hometown in west Texas. He lived in a temporary halfway house and had nothing to his name except a few sets of clothing.
Even though Billy was a changed man, now sober for over six months, he needed help getting a job and stable housing of his own. The VA referred him to Caritas’ veterans program, and he was amazed how quickly things started to fall into place.
“From the first time I met with Karrie at Caritas, I felt sure things were going to be okay and that these people were committed to my success.”
They identified an apartment within a week’s time, and Billy moved into his own studio apartment just a couple of weeks later. “I can’t even explain what it felt like to be in my own place. It is so quiet and peaceful here.”
Just weeks after moving in, Billy was approached by a friend who worked on the maintenance crew for his apartment complex, seeing if he needed a job. After seeing Billy’s work, he was hired on the spot and now helps oversee all maintenance needs for nine neighborhood apartment complexes.
“It feels good to have a job and a steady income. I am really back on my feet now.”
During this time of transition, Caritas of Austin also helped Billy with apartment furnishings, food from the Caritas Pantry, bus passes, and budgeting assistance to help him plan for the future. Billy also still participates in ongoing mental health and sobriety counseling.
“We can’t forget about our veterans, those who are fighting for our freedoms. We can’t forget about what they are coming back with – they badly need therapy and to be connected to support services.”
Billy says he felt like he lost his whole life, and now he has it back again thanks to Caritas. “I can’t say enough about Caritas. You all have changed my world. You have been my rock.”
Now Billy is committed to helping other veterans who are struggling. “Anything I can do to help another veteran, I will do it. No one understands what a veteran has been through except another veteran.” With your assistance, we can continue to assist veterans like Billy as they move towards self-sufficiency.
A Family Finds Stability Again
Lashanya, a single mother, has lived in Austin her entire life. She said she has never known anything other than stability until last year.“I always had a steady job and lived in the same apartment for nearly eight years,”she said.
Lashanya was pregnant with her son, Aiden, last summer and employed through a temporary staffing agency. She was put on bed rest when she was around seven months pregnant due to high blood pressure and was unable to work for the remaining two months of pregnancy.
Without a source of income and increasing medical expenses, Lashanya and her children became homeless, spending the next seven months bouncing around staying with family members and sleeping in her car. She remembers the cold, rainy nights being the hardest. Lashanya continued having health issues after she gave birth, which delayed her ability to find work again. She had no one to turn to for support.
Someone finally mentioned Caritas’ housing programs that help people experiencing homelessness, and she called for help. “It was such a good feeling to hear from Rachel, who became my Caritas case manager. She is amazing. From the moment I first spoke with her, I felt like I wasn’t even homeless anymore because she gave me hope that everything was going to be okay.”
Thanks to a strong relationship with a local landlord who believes in Caritas’ work, the landlord mentioned having a home for rent available that would meet Lashanya and her family’s needs. Within just a few weeks, they moved in.
“Being able to have a home that we can call our own felt so good,” said Lashanya. “The kids were so excited they wanted to miss school on the day we moved in! They didn’t even care that we had no furniture yet; they just loved running around in the house.”
Caritas was able to provide the family with household furniture for the home. Rachel also helped Lashanya get groceries from the Caritas Pantry and connected her to mental health services.
Most importantly, Lashanya now had the stability needed to seek employment. She recently found a job and is on the path to self-sufficiency. “I am so excited to work again,” she said. “I am ready to be the parent that can do all the things I want for my children again.”
Lashanya has a hard time even thinking back on how much they have struggled over the past year. “The hardest part was not knowing where we were going to sleep each night.”
Lashanya's stability is so important for her children's futures. We know that the less time children spend in unstable living situations, the more likely they are to thrive academically and lead productive lives as adults.
She can’t express enough gratitude for Caritas’ help during her time of greatest need. “This program helps you become the person you were before, and that’s priceless.”
Rachel has been inspired working with Lashanya. “Working with this family has been a joy. As early as our first meeting, I could tell that she was ready to work to get through her hard time and find a home for her family. Experiencing homelessness while pregnant is an unimaginable circumstance for a lot of people, but Lashanya got through it and has shown amazing resiliency.”
Now Lashanya’s looking toward the future with hope. Over the next year, her biggest goal is just to maintain stability and happiness for her family. This story of hope and resilience would not be possible without your support!