Encountering Homelessness in Austin

Matt DampierLove Where We Live, Loving Our Neighbor

Dear Christ Church,

In late July 2021 I was privileged to host a conversation between Alan Graham and Mark Hilbelink about homelessnes in Austin and how Christians and churches can respond. Alan is the visionary founder of Community First! Village, a master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing for the chronically homeless in the central Texas area. Mark is the Lead Pastor of Sunrise Community Church in south Austin and the Director of the Navigation Center, a one-stop aid clinic helping to transition neighbors out of homelessness.

As I was leading the conversation, I realized the beauty of the unfolding evening: a lay Roman Catholic (Alan) and a Christian Reformed Calvinist (Mark) were talking in an Anglican church about the flourishing of our city. This was a snapshot of a beautiful unity that respects denominational differences but finds common space in the economy of God’s family. Christ Church, you also showed up wonderfully! There were those who were new to Christ Church, long timers, youth, young adults, and mature adults, vestry, men and women, those living close to the church and those further out. This was a group that really represented our whole church well!

The conversation was wonderful and throughout the night I sensed the whole room leaning in to learn from these practitioners. I’ll briefly recap the key points of the evening below. You can also listen to the audio replay here.

1) Causes of homelessness

There are multiple causes of homelessness. There are both individual and systemic forces at work, generational effects and personal decisions, that all contribute to homelessness. Alan shared a graphic showing the multiple paths of disaster and trauma that contribute to a person becoming homeless (shown below). Alan and Mark then gave phrases for how to understand the causes of homelessness.

Alan: The single greatest cause of homelessness is the profound, catastrophic loss of family.

Mark: We offer whole person care for the whole person trauma of homelessness.
Visual graphic provided by Alan Graham, Mobile Loaves & Fishes

2) Responses to homelessness

Both Mark and Alan stressed that ‘solution’ is the wrong word. Alan said, “This isn’t solving homelessness, it’s mitigating it…Working with those experiencing homelessness is more like hospice work.” Because of this, all Christian responses must be relational, loving, and personal towards our neighbors; they are not program- or ego-driven. And Mark said that the only way to fail is by doing nothing.

3) Homelessness in Austin

Alan mentioned that rather than looking at the exact number of people experiencing homelessness, it’s best to look at the trends. In 2020, there were about 2500 chronically homeless in Austin. That’s a mitigatable number but there are many impediments as Alan discussed. Our shelter bed capacity also decreased in 2020. But even at full capacity, Mark pointed out that Austin has “a few hundred beds for a few thousand people.” He went on to say that one of the hardest things they do as a triage center is telling a person for the first time that there isn’t a shelter bed.

4) Dirt under the nails

Alan is a national leader in this arena; so many leaders in Austin look up to him as a mentor and hero when working with those experiencing homelessness. When I asked him who his heroes were, I expected him to say another national leader or a historic saint. He looked at me and then gestured to the man sitting next to him, Mark. He went on to name about a half dozen more Austin practitioners doing the gritty work of being with people, getting ‘dirt under their nails’ as a Matthew 25 practitioner says.

The heroes in this world aren’t the ones who start extraordinary foundations or programs, but the Jesus-lovers who continue to faithfully love their neighbors in their city.

Thank you to Alan Graham and Mark Hilbelink for sharing their wisdom, vision, and mission with us!

Prayer

Increase, O God, the spirit of neighbourliness among us, that in peril we may uphold one another, in suffering tend to one another, and in homelessness, loneliness, or exile befriend one another. Grant us brave and enduring hearts that we may strengthen one another, until the disciplines and testing of these days are ended, and you again give peace in our time; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

 


Recommended resources for further learning. These were mentioned throughout the evening.