AUSTIN, Texas – Residents at Austin’s new 5-acre homeless encampment near Austin’s international airport may have been uprooted from familiar surroundings under the city’s 17 overpasses, but they are not going hungry, thanks to volunteers from various charities and faith-based groups, including Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief.
Acting on orders from Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Department of Transportation crews began clearing Austin homeless camps in early November, a response to the city’s relaxation of ordinances prohibiting sleeping and camping in public spaces.
The state encampment, which includes hand-washing stations and portable restrooms, is temporary, until Austin leaders develop a permanent solution to the city’s homelessness problem.
SBTC DR involvement came following a mid-November phone call to Scottie Stice, SBTC DR director, from Mario Chapa who is the mass care coordinator at the Texas Department of Emergency Management.
Chapa was looking for Austin-area ministries to prepare meals, Stice told the TEXAN. After supplying the names of Baptist churches and associations, Stice mentioned SBTC DR’s quick response kitchen.
“The QR can help you out in a pinch,” Stice told Chapa, who requested assistance for the first week of December.
QR veterans Connie and Ronnie Roark of Salem-Sayers Baptist Church near San Antonio, joined by Delpha and Doug Cates of Pampa’s Top O’ Texas Baptist Association, deployed the weekend after Thanksgiving to stay for more than a week.
“Our unit relieved the Salvation Army’s kitchen. The Salvation Army will relieve us Monday [Dec. 9] and TBM will come after that,” Stice said, calling the ministry a “shared opportunity until things come online in a more permanent way,” adding that SBTC DR is pleased to support Texas emergency management and will return if requested.
The QR volunteers are being housed at First Baptist Pflugerville.
Currently, only about 40 residents have set up housekeeping at the state site, claiming space inside covered former vehicle bays forming a horseshoe inside the paved, fenced grounds. Some set up tents outside the bays. Many arrived via public transportation, while others drove cars to the encampment and sleep in their vehicles.
Many seem distressed at being displaced, the Roarks said.
“This [camp] is an option that’s been opened up for them to come…. They are allowed to come and go if they don’t like it,” Ronnie Roark said. “There’s a mixture of feelings. The underpass – that was their life. They were told you can no longer stay here. You have to go someplace else. Even though we may not think of that as a disaster, it’s a disaster to them.”
The residents are forming their own governments and social rules, Connie added. Last Sunday, some Austin residents brought furniture, pictures and home décor items to the camp, which residents took to brighten up their spaces.
Despite misgivings about their new circumstances, no one is complaining about the food.
All seem grateful for the three meals a day the DR crews are providing: a hot breakfast of biscuits, gravy and sausage, or breakfast tacos, a sack lunch and a hot dinner, along with plenty of coffee.
Pot roast, rice and vegetables comprised the supper menu Dec. 5.
Spiritual connections fill casual conversations.
“We pray before serving meals. This was unusual for some of them,” Ronnie said, adding that one resident asked if he could ask the blessing one night and “did a beautiful job.”
Many residents brought pet dogs to the encampment. Lori, who had seemed unapproachable, asked Connie to pray for her dog with a hurt foot. Connie did and Lori’s countenance softened. She became open and friendly.
It’s a hard life: for some, a life they have chosen; for others, one that has been thrust upon them.
“We try to share forgiveness with them,” Connie said, explaining that the team places Christian tracts in the sack lunches. Many residents read these, approaching the crew to talk.
“I couldn’t make it if I wasn’t a Christian,” one man said. Released from prison, he said he was still too ashamed to go home.
His story was similar to others heard by the volunteers.
“They know God has forgiven them, but they don’t know how to get forgiveness from their families,” Connie said.
Initially, some of the residents seemed wary or suspicious of the SBTC DR feeding crew.
“Once they found out what we were, their attitudes changed,” Connie said. “They became very welcoming and appreciative.”
Doug Cates added, chuckling, “On the lighter side, I can tell that all these people here are Baptist because they respond to food.”
Cates added that the deployment, though small, is providing opportunities for him and his wife to learn best practices regarding the use of the QR kitchen, since Top O’ Texas has recently acquired one.
“Not only are we doing missionary work with the feeding, but hopefully we also are building relationships [with state agencies] that will be great on down the road,” Ronnie said.
Meanwhile, the city of Austin continues to search for solutions to the problems of homelessness. The Austin city council recently approved the purchase of the South Austin Rodeway Inn for use as a homeless shelter and released a memo concerning plans to purchase other available Austin hotels for that purpose.
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.