Tag Archives: poverty

Community First! Village in Austin, Texas

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Community First! Village in Austin, Texas

Keep Austin Weird. That’s the tagline for the Capitol of Texas, which happens to be one of the trendiest places to live according to the mass movement of techies and young urban professionals from basically everywhere. This culture is reflected in the city’s bars and nightlife; incorporating open air patios, food trucks, roof tops bars and live music into many public spaces. Everything from the breweries, to the gastropubs, to the graffiti art on the walls simply beams with authenticity. It is no surprise that this city has a unique and authentic way of taking care of its homeless residents as well.

Community First! Village is a community of affordable tiny houses for chronically homeless, disabled residents in East Austin. It is managed by the non for profit food truck ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes that collaborated with businesses, non profits and foundations to provide this space for the most vulnerable members of their community. Amenities include outdoor kitchen spaces, public restrooms, laundry facility, a community market, open air cinema, workshop, tool bank and art gallery. A community works program provides micro-enterprise opportunities; and sustainability projects include community gardens (including permaculture), a chicken operation, bee hives producing fresh honey, and aquaponics. Public transportation provides access to the city via a bus route that stops on property.

The village is a “27-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.” The homes on their property provide a diverse pallet of affordable housing options, ranging from camping shelters, to micro homes with public restroom facilities, mobile homes with indoor plumbing, and even tepees (the original form of affordable housing). The structures are provided by local church groups, mission groups, the building community, and other local businesses and organizations. The residents who inhabit these homes are screened through a coordinated entry system, to make sure that the most at-risk of Austin’s homeless residents have access to housing first. Some may receive HUD or other government entitlements, while all residents pay rent on a sliding scale. There are also “missional” residents who live there, to be the community friends and good neighbors that formerly homeless, disabled residents need as a support system of people who love and care for them.

A medical facility provides onsite care for physical health screenings as well as case management through Austin Travis County Integral Care for residents affected by behavioral health and developmental and/or intellectual challenges. This is key to making this development successful as a permanent supportive housing community for chronically homeless individuals. It is also the feature that distinguishes Community First! Village as a Permanent Supportive Housing community, as opposed to self governing shanty towns such as Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. Austin has definitely thought this through in a way that fills in all of the gaps left by Portland’s project, yet maintains the character and authenticity of the community. It is so inspiring to see how this community cared enough to come together to build a community that is safe and affordable for those who need it most. I can’t help but think what we could do for homeless families and the working poor, with just a little more forethought.

With the shortage of affordable housing in the United States and the high cost of development, it is simply not profitable to build housing for extremely low income renters (those making 30% or less of the area median income). Even with vouchers and tax credits from the government, it is still not affordable to build affordable housing that would cost $434 per month in Orange County. Micro-housing and tiny homes could provide an adequate and unique approach to increasing the inventory of affordable housing for families, simply by adding indoor plumbing to the designs I saw in Austin. A community-wide effort is all that it would take to complete this equation.

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America’s Refugees

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America’s Refugees

Seventy-five percent of extremely low income families cannot find affordable rental housing, but it’s not for lack of effort (iii). Rather, a deficit of affordable housing leaves more than 10 million U.S. families either stranded or teetering on the edge of homelessness. This is particularly common in Florida, where only 22 units of affordable housing are available per 100 extremely low income families (6). Regardless of political affiliations, we can all agree that increasing the inventory of affordable rental housing is a prerequisite for ending homelessness and giving hope to America’s refugees – extremely low income families making less than 30% of the average median income (1).

“Affordable housing” is defined as housing that costs 30% or less of a person’s monthly income. A household that spends more than 30% of their income on housing and utility costs is considered “housing burdened” and at risk of becoming homeless. HUD Secretary Julian Castro states that “there is a shortage of 7.2 million affordable housing units for the nation’s more than 10 million extremely low income families.” The direct result is that 75% of these families are forced to pay over 50% of their wages on rent, making them severely cost burdened.

Eventually, this burden will catch up with them. A missed paycheck or medical emergency might be the the straw that breaks the camels back, as these families are forced to make hard choices and compromises to make ends meet. Necessary medications are foregone, payday loans taken out, or credit cards maxed out with unsustainable debt. The consequences of these choices inevitably lead to a Catch 22 with no way out besides shelters, doubling up, living in motel rooms, sleeping in cars, or worse – becoming homeless. And in Central Florida, one in every 50 families and one in every 17 children will experience homelessness in the course of a year (45).

These extremely low income families are the working poor. They are the subject of the Heart of Florida United Way’s A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report, which details the struggles of Floridians trying to survive with only the most basic necessities. According to this report, the Household Survival Budget for a family with 2 children is $47,484; which only includes  Housing, Child care, Food, Transportation, Health Care, and 10% Miscellaneous (i.e. cell phone expenses). However, the median family income is $45,040 per year. It is estimated that 3.2 million households, or 45% of total households in Florida, are struggling to afford these necessities (4).

Add to this equation wage stagnation and the fact that only 22 units of affordable housing exist per 100 extremely low income families; it’s no wonder that nearly 70,000 homeless youth were enrolled in Florida’s schools in 2013. That is, 18 % of the Nation’s homeless school-aged children live in Florida (7). The psychological, nutritional and academic consequences for these students are the only part of this that adds up, concomitantly increasing the costs of public education, social services, and future prison expenses in the worst case scenarios. But most importantly, even the brightest children may be robbed of the chance to go on to lead healthy, balanced, and productive lives. Whether your political affiliations would have you fix this by increasing the minimum wage or not, we can all agree that there is a deficit of housing that is both affordable and available. Increasing this inventory is a public good and worthwhile investment in preventing family homelessness.

Working Poor

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Working Poor

Imagine what it’s like to raise your family in a motel. The academic, nutritional and social consequences for children abound. It’s only a step above homelessness, but so many are cycling through seedy motel rooms because of the lack of affordable housing in Central Florida… Yesterday, my friend Jen and I volunteered to survey the occupants of some of these motels. We met both families and individuals with interesting stories of how they ended up in this situation, and most interestingly – they were all employed. I’ll share a few of their stories here.

First we met Mr. Ulrie, who was a Vietnam war Veteran that had worked for the IRS for fifteen years before moving to Central Florida. He now works full-time at a popular hotel chain, but has lived in the motel where we met him for the past 3 years. He swore to us that he was not on drugs. He had just returned from his shift and was sipping a Bud Light. “This is my only drug,” he said as he tapped the can. Because of health problems, he hadn’t been able to work for a month and that’s how he ended up in a motel. He’s been on a waiting list for an apartment complex down the street, but they won’t call because he has an eviction on his record.

Next, we met Lexi who was living in a motel room with 4 children and her significant other. Her one year old little boy chased an inflatable ball outside the room as we asked her a few questions “to help us do a better job with programs and services for people without stable, permanent housing.” She was so grateful – you could see it in her eyes as she said it was a “really good thing that y’all are doing.” She was 20 years old with two small children, and raising her boyfriend’s teenage sons as well. She worked part time as a waitress, and she guessed that they had lived in 20 different motels in the area, also because of past evictions. She was still so young herself, but as a product of the Department of Children & Families, she had no other family or support system to rely on.

Similarly, Chayew did not have any family to rely on either. All of his relatives had died from alcoholism, but he said he had been sober for 20 years. He was a Native American from the Seminole tribe, and he didn’t even want to talk to us because he was used to the government wasting his time. After a bit of coaxing, he opened the door and came out to share his story. He was a product of the Government Boarding Schools Program, and he said he had lived in every motel along the I92 corridor where we were surveying. He called his motel room his “kingdom” then pointed to an old van in the parking lot, which also sometimes served as his “kingdom.” He had been working as a plasterer at a local theme park, but was suddenly out of work. He might end up sleeping in his van or in the woods nearby soon.

We met another man named James, who also worked full time in construction and didn’t make enough money to afford a security deposit, on top of first and last month’s rent at an apartment. This was typical of most. Someone even stated that the price of renting was so high that you might as well buy a house. While unemployment is at an all-time low in Floridathe median price of housing is rising; and this leaves many of the working poor with few options other than to throw away the little money they have on rent, or live in these motels. In the worst case scenario, families end up living in their cars or even in the woods.

In the best cases, they end up in these shady motels, where their children might witness some of the most hopeless forms of human activity from a young age. And as Lexi’s case shows, placing these children in DCF might only perpetuate this cycle. The amount of strain that living in these close quarters can put on a relationship or family dynamic is bad enough on its own. And the degree that this kind of environment can set back a school-aged child is catastrophic to their future development. Something needs to be done. Giving these families affordable housing options is the only way to give their children the equal opportunity that they deserve to go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives. Whether privately or publicly funded, they need affordable housing now.

Waking Up in Orlando

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Waking Up in Orlando

This morning I couldn’t sleep, so I went to take breakfast to my favorite crew on a job site. As I was making the rounds with the site superintendent, one of our team members mentioned that he hadn’t gotten much sleep either because his sister’s home had been shot up in Eatonville. His nieces were there with his nephew, who almost got hit by one of six bullets that hit the front of their house. When the mother went outside, she saw a person dead with his brains “hanging out” on the sidewalk. Her family had gone to stay with her brother, who was standing with me on this job site at 6 am. Understandably, he couldn’t sleep much last night either.

I finished the rounds and completed my business on site, before heading back to the office. Somehow when I read the business journal, I found it hard to get excited about the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s picture would be appearing on the backside of the new five dollar bill. It doesn’t seem to change things for the people living in Eatonville, and all over the United States, who are waking up to bullet holes in their walls and dead people in their yards.

Last week, I heard of two gang related shootings in West Orlando in one day. A friend of mine who teaches at The Human Experience, a private school that supports at-risk children from some of the worst areas of town, posted this picture on Facebook with two separate stories of gang violence that had impacted his life in twenty-four hours.

One was a student who texted him from his home in Parramore, scared because his street was blocked off and his mother couldn’t get back to him. Their neighborhood was on lockdown from a shooting with six victims. At least one dead. The other was one of the school’s “most intelligent, creative, sweet, and promising former students” who “had to witness her mother being shot.”

My heart is broken for Orlando. God help us all, if we sit by any longer and let this continue to happen to another generation. Stop focusing on the political circus that is the U. S. Presidential elections and open your eyes to the ways you can get involved in your community to help those in need. Donate to the Human Experience. Volunteer as an after school tutor at the New Image Youth Center in Parramore.. Clean up Parramore this weekend with The Orlando Union Rescue Mission. Placing Dr. King or Harriet Tubman’s picture on currency won’t do much to change this reality for black, hispanic, immigrant or poor white communities affected by gang violence all over the country, much less in Orlando. But you can begin to do something to help your community today.

Small Homes for Families

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Small Homes for Families

Last year there was a tiny house exhibit at Central Florida Earth Day 2015. Since I had just visited Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, I naturally wanted to visit. And I took my grandmother with me for a day of quality time strolling around Lake Eola. My preconceived notions led me to believe that the tiny homes would be ideal for chronically homeless individuals; but my grandmother’s stories changed my perspective. They led me to believe that small homes would be perfect for housing homeless families, victims of domestic abuse, single mothers with children, and especially to provide affordable housing for the working poor in general.

While we were looking at one tiny houses that looked like a doll house, Mamita surprised me by explaining that she had raised four children in a room half as small. She would swing two babies in hammocks, while two children slept in bed with her. Some of her children were already grown, and occasionally her drunken husband would come home to rape and impregnate her again. So, sometimes there would be as many as six people in this tiny shack. She would cook on a fire hearth stove in the corner of the room.

Mamita told me about the struggle that was her life – including some stories that I already knew, but still I always listen. She worked as a nanny for a little girl with Down’s syndrome during the day, and sold bus and boledo (lottery) tickets at the depot in the mornings and evenings. Then she would stay up until 12 am hand scrubbing sheets and laundry for a shilling ($0.25) a piece. She stayed up even later to cook food for her children to eat the next day, then woke up at 5:00 am to fold laundry and do it all again. I don’t think she even had days off.

Being the type of person who loves to sleep, I didn’t understand how she could even function on such little sleep. But this is how she raised ten children – in a tiny house, with an abusive alcoholic husband, who was only there some of the time and never helped. My perspective on small homes for the homeless was forever changed that day, as I realized that these structures needed to be so much more than just “better than being homeless.” They needed to be built so well that I would be happy for my grandmother to raise my mother there, and for other working mothers to be able to raise their children out of poverty. They should set a standard of excellence that people will want to see and replicate.

I’m really looking forward to my grandmother visiting again next month. I can’t wait to spend time with her and just listen to her stories. She is such a strong little lady. She will be 86 this year, and she continues to inspire me to be the woman I am today.  I am so blessed to have her in my life, and I can’t wait to show her the New Dignity Small Home that my team is building as an affordable housing model.

Mountain Village

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Mountain Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala and witnessed the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

We drove through the desert of Guatemala to Zacapa, and up a mountain ridge to a village called Pinalito. The only way to reach the village was through a dried up river bed. My hosts worried that we might not be able to make it, since we could get stuck if it started raining. Luckily, the rain held up, and we made it to the mission at the peak of the mountain in Pinalito.

I can honestly say that I have never seen such abject poverty in my entire life as I did in Pinalito. Like in Castulo, the residents of Pinalito eat primarily corn tortillas, which leaves them malnourished. Their children die of malnutrition, usually at a very young age. Maternal mortality in labor is also common, and the closest hospital is at the base of the mountain in Zacapa. The rough terrain on the mountain side, along with the subsistence-agriculture living of Pinalito’s residents, places each family at a fair distance from its closest neighbor.

The mission began as a clinic and school for the children of Pinalito, and children walk from all over the mountain, bare-footed through the jungle, to get an education in exchange for food. The feeding program rewards students for their school attendance each month with beans, rice, and sugar; or else they might not be allowed to attend. The clinic is equipped to provide basic medical attention (stitches, broken bones, etc.), give vitamins to new mothers/children, and distribute clothes to whomever needs them. Occasionally doctors or dentists visit with teams from the states, and volunteer their services in the clinic. Some teams of volunteers help with construction projects.

The missionaries teach the farmers new techniques to generate revenue for the village. They have learned how to grow completely organic coffee (using soapy water instead of insecticides to kill bugs.) There is a factory where they collectively roast the coffee. The missionaries use their network to connect the producers with buyers in the states, without collecting a profit. Macadamia nut trees shade the coffee plants, and will eventually be another cash crop for sale. While we were there, the mission hosted a session on how to graft citrus plants. They recently started to use earth worm composting, which I thought was great. The mission itself was solar and gas powered, since there is no electricity on the mountain. In general, it was very sustainable.

I woke up the next day at the mission house and walked into the kitchen to be greeted with “Hola!” by adorable little children with their faces pressed against the bars on the windows. Later, I met 2 little girls that were playing in the school yard. Their mom had died giving birth to their youngest sister. They were so tiny. The older one was 9, and she had to take care of her 3 younger siblings, including her new-born sister after her mom died. Their dad was an alcoholic. When their mom died, he went on a drinking binge and abandoned them without any resources at all. Now he is back and still spends all of their money on alcohol. We bribed her and her 5 year-old little sister with new clothes, so that they would take showers. They were filthy from walking barefoot on the muddy mountain paths. They ate candy and chattered happily while I brushed their hair. We sent them home with soap, shampoo, and underwear that they would most likely sell to buy food, unless their dad spent the money on alcohol.

My hosts and I hiked 30 minutes through the rain forest to visit two of the poorest families on the mountain. The first family we met was a young girl with 4 kids. She used to be the smartest student at the mission’s school, but her parents married her off to a man in the village when she was 14. Her first son lost his eye due to malnutrition. We gave her food and some toiletries, along with vitamins. The one thing that struck me while we were at their house was the dogs. A mother dog had 4 puppies and the family could hardly afford to feed themselves, much less the dogs. The bitch was bloated from starvation and her nipples were sagging from nursing her puppies, which were so skinny that I could see their ribs and bones.

The next family was probably the poorest family on the entire mountain. A single mother and her 3 sons lived in a 15’ x 10’ hut made out of sticks and a tin roof. She didn’t have a husband, and her oldest son left the mountain to find migrant work when he was just 14. I was told that when the missionaries first visited the family’s home, they only had 10 sticks for “walls” and half a tin roof. During the rainy season, their house was washed down the side of the hill, and they would have to rebuild every time it rained. They weren’t home, but we hid a bag of food and other things under their (only) blanket in the tiny shanty.

It started pouring down rain as soon as we returned to the mission, and we had to leave immediately. The stream in the previously dried up river bed quickly turned into a creek, but we were still able to drive through it. We thought we might have to hike down the mountain, but we made it down only having to walk a little while. The rest of the trip was a blur. I got home on a Sunday, and started summer classes the next day. I learned about “Culture & World Politics,” and wondered how many more mountains existed with villages like Pinalito sitting on top of them – in the U.S. and all over the world. How many of them were lucky enough to have a mission? And how many more did not?

Mayan Village

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Mayan Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala to bare witness to the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

I flew into Guatemala City on a Monday, and a missionary couple picked me up. Within an hour of being in the country, we drove over a bridge with armed policemen guarding each end of it. This didn’t seem abnormal until someone pointed out that in the previous two weeks, three different people had stopped cars in the middle of the bridge and jumped over the guard rail into the ravine below. The police were there to prevent another incident, or maybe just to move any empty cars that might cause traffic jams.

We drove out of the capitol, winding around S-curved mountain roads and suddenly I saw a crippled man using his arms to pull himself into the road. I shrieked, and the driver managed to swerve around him. His skin was darkly tanned, and it was obvious that he had spent most of his life in the sun. I couldn’t believe that anyone would hope to die like that.

We ended up in a town called Rio Dulce, and stayed overnight near the river. The next day we took a two hour boat ride up a tributary to visit a rural village near Castulo Creek. A decrepit wooden house sat in the middle of a farm yard on the bank, while turkeys, chickens and horses roamed around. Across the yard, a wooden bridge stretched over a swamp and into a cow pasture, where a herd of bulls grazed at the bottom of a steep hill. It was still the dry season, but there was already muddy water at both ends of the bridge from an early rain. I learned that the first time my hosts visited this village; they had to wade waist-deep through these swampy grasses to reach the hills. They built the bridge not too long before, with the help of a team of volunteers.

We hiked up the hill and 20 minutes into the jungle before reaching a village named Castulo, where the residents lived the same way that Mayan villagers have for centuries. The first time my missionary friends arrived in Castulo in the 1990s, the villagers had never seen anyone as pale as them. At that point in time, the death rate was 50% because the villagers were dehydrated and sick from drinking dirty water. My hosts showed them how to clean the water to make it drinkable, and helped them re-hydrate with a sugar-saline mixture. No one died after that.

The village was centrally planned around a soccer field in front of a school house that a missionary team built. The children learned their own Mayan dialect, as well as some Spanish. Education is their only chance to improve their livelihoods, possibly move away someday, or make a better life for future generations. Everyone in the village gathered to meet us at the 2-room school house. The students were so excited to take a break and play, and some of the kids brought us baby Amazon yellow-head parrots to hold.

Families live in thatched roof huts made with cahoon palm tree frons for roofs and bamboo as walls. The floors are dirt, and the typical ‘stove’ is an open-fire hearth in the middle of the hut. Their diets consist primarily of corn tortillas, which is not enough to sustain a person. Women use a metate (mealing stone) to grind corn into flour that they use for dough. Tortillas are flattened and baked over the hearth on a flat piece of aluminum. The village has no electricity, but a team of volunteers had built a new hand-pump well.

Idealistically, I thought that if I were Guatemalan, I would be more content to grow up insulated in Castulo than in the smoggy, over-crowded capitol. It seemed to me that without electricity, TV, or radio; people must be happier there. Surely, no one committed suicide in Castulo? Of course, I was wrong and my host told me that 2 people had chosen to take their lives since he had been to Castulo. One was a girl who drank plant fertilizer after fighting with her boyfriend. The other was a heart-broken boy. Before the end of the trip, I received notice that my cousin had killed himself and his ex wife had been found dead. I started summer school the day after I returned, and went to the funeral the following weekend.

No Strings Attached

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In 2008, I served on an advisory board for an international foundation that supports non governmental organizations helping victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. We targeted organizations that aimed to “rescue, restore and reintegrate” victims into society, and many were doing a wonderful job with treatment as well as prevention.

However, it would really frustrate me when some faith based non for profits would attach strings to their charity. Meaning, they would only give these young women food and shelter IF they would attend religious services, Bible studies, and accept Jesus as their Lord & Savior. It would honestly infuriate me to think that someone who has been a victim of the worst kinds of abuse would then be required to conform to another’s belief system before he or she could receive shelter, food, and clothing.

One example was a young girl less than 17 years old in Thailand. She was sold by her parents, most likely to make ends meet so they could feed their other children. She had been diagnosed with HIV, and was (understandably) feeling resentment over the awful hand she had been dealt in life. Her refusal to participate in Bible studies resulted in her rapid return to the streets.

The Jesus I know would not have refused help to anyone just because they didn’t believe in Him. Needless to say, that organization did NOT receive my recommendation for funding.

Snap Shot of a Third World Country

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Snap Shot of a Third World Country

This morning, my dad and I traveled to the sketchy part of Belize City to get some of the BEST meat pies in the country. I had just rolled up my window after taking this picture – to juxtapose my normal shots of beautiful reefs and islands – when a man walked up to my car door. He yanked on the door handle and spun around after finding it locked, then ripped his shorts off before pacing by the car, naked and cursing. Two police officers watched from the shop door and shook their heads, knowing it would be too much hassle to reprimand the crazy man and that I wasn’t in any real danger. I just wanted to post this to raise awareness for the adversity that up-and-coming entrepreneurs must overcome in lesser developed countries like Belize. The rule of law is the only thing that makes it possible for business owners like Dario to sell their products and contribute to the economy, while law enforcement is tenuous at best. This is why we should be grateful to the people who risk their lives every day to make sure that things like this don’t happen in our countries. Meanwhile, police officers in Belize must pick their battles… By the way, the meat pies were worth it!