Aug 28, 2021

Days of our lives during August!

 (Notes from the team about client progress, events, news)

Mon 8/2 -- Six clients braved the rain to come for needed supplies. Thank you to volunteers Amanda Hyde and Rachel Durkin-Drga (pictured) for organizing our third floor arts room, and thanks to Keep Austin Fed for the sesame orange glazed pork, rice and veggies for clients! We have begun outreach in East Austin on Mondays.
   The rainy weather today actually was a boon: We served three groups by stopping at two locations -- near the Boggy Creek Greenbelt and under the parking cover at a boarded-up Sonic near the HEB on East 7th Street. Clients included two older folks who got meals and referrals for housing through HACA.
   We served all of them meals, toiletries and canned food. We explained what we do, gave out flyers and answered questions that they asked about Jesus. All reported dangerous situations and one was healing from gunshot wounds.

Tue 8/3 --  Today was a nice, cool, overcast day with 12 clients looking for snacks to help make it through the day. One told about maintaining housing, and another told us of prospects for a new job.
   Our men’s group today was a hybrid, with both in-person and on-line participants joining us in the newly dubbed “hideout” inside our Drop-in Center. All first-time participants get SYMinU (SYMin University) credits sufficient for a weekly bus pass. Great donations came today from St. Luke's of the Lake Episcopal Church near Steiner Ranch. Included were coloring books from a local Austin illustrator.

Wed 8/4 -- Seventeen clients dropped by today, one of them newly homeless, to get food and learn what services were available. Thank you to Jean and Dennis Brender for generous food donations!

Thu 8/5 --Today was cloudy and overcast with a little rain early, but it stopped before we closed and gave us enough time to serve nine visitors. The food bags given to some included items with pop-tops, ready to eat!

 “Cooking with Yoly” class today taught us to make delicious tuna salad sandwiches with our camping bag supplies and some very special homemade pickles! Participants shared food and cooking stories, and Terry was our tester. A tough job!
Fri 8/6 --Today, a mess outside greeted us when we arrived at the drop-by, but when clients realized we would not open unless it was cleaned up, they took action and did the job! Eleven of them managed to get food and service as a result. One client redeemed SYMinU points for a Bluetooth wireless headphone. Rosie and Terry were able to connect with four clients in San Marcos

Mon 8/9 -- Thirteen clients came today, and one of them wants to go back to high school and turn his life around. Interns Emma and Molei made some paper fans as part of Chill Week, and clients loved them!
   Terry and Rosie worked East Austin, spreading the word about SYMin services for young adults 28 and under. At the drop-by, we gave out 20 meals, cold water and lots of clothing and toiletries. Keep Austin Fed provided meals of teriyaki meat balls, rice and veggies.
    A wonderful youth group from Christ Church of Austin joined us to learn what we do and why it matters. Then they helped decorate our planters and make a new trash can for visitors.

Tue 8/10 -- Today we welcomed 13 visitors to the drop-by. One received a bag with frozen meats and veggies; all were looking to fulfill daily needs, including clothing and a hot meal. Unfortunately, an illegal camp re-appeared overnight in front of our walkway, and for a time it looked like an old “skid row.” SYMin will not open while camping and littering the sidewalk and walkways prevent safe access for our clients.
   Austin Public Health gave its fifth vaccination clinic this summer for us, and five clients received their shots so they could work, not worry about getting COVID later, support their decision to turn their lives around better, and receive a small gift card as a thank you from SYMin.
    Wed 8/11 --  It took a while before the clients understood we would not open for service until camps were cleared from the walkways around the drop-by. We stayed closed 1.5 hours while homeless neighbors cleaned the area; eight clients received food and drink once we were able to open.
    Thu 8/12 -- Today the illegal camp was present and quite unsanitary when we first arrived at 11, so opening was delayed ‘til 12:30. We had to close early at 3 p.m. because of overcrowding at our gate with loud noise and inability to mask or keep social distance, but we made sure anyone who came specifically to see us was served. We had two visitors in the Cooking with Yoly class; they earned enough SYMinU bonus points for weekly bus passes and helped make sandwiches for visitors too old to receive other services. The team celebrated our summer intern Emma Ward and wished her good luck as she leaves to return to school, where she is studying to be a teacher.

Aug 27, 2021

Clients convert work, learning to helpful rewards via SYMinU points


We get our best ideas from clients. They want to volunteer and they want to “earn” goodies that are available only in limited quantities, so we folded these into our SYMinU experience.
    Clients earn points for the effort and duration of helpful tasks like taking out trash, sweeping sidewalks, raking leaves, breaking down boxes for recycling and cleaning up neighborhood messes. The points are redeemable for things like:
   ● phone chargers, phone banks, and charger cables
   ● reset phones capable of wifi calls without service or activations without contracts
   ● headphones (both low- and mid-range)
   ● entry level smartphones
   ● guitars
   ● laptops
   ● monitors

Clients can earn points in other ways, like studying life skills on-line and passing quizzes over what they learn, but we get them started with volunteering. 

It’s something they love.

Aug 24, 2021

"Chill Week" carries a message of peace

From Aug. 9-14, we carried out a “Chill Week” theme, aiming to lessen the effects of the heat by focusing on snow, ice, cold treats, etc. We handed out fans, water balloons, ice cream and popsicles at the drop-by, and we held Bible studies about cooling our anger and trusting fully in God -- sort of “chilling” in His capable hands. Some clients took these messages to heart; others, unfortunately, made less wise choices. When this happens, we enforce boundaries, including closing until clients are willing to obey the rules, which meet the needs of us and our clients. We try hard not to be the authoritarians. Suggestions: Give our team and visiting clients what is critically needed -- safe and clean conditions to interact.

   The Aug. 10 barbecue/game night in east Austin was held as scheduled -- a peaceful island in a stormy ocean caused by high anxiety of homeless people about the camping ban and changes, the ongoing rise of COVID issues, and the rising temperatures. Five clients, two team members, one volunteer and barbecue vendor Mrs. Val attended. One client spoke of a long-term plan for sobriety. Another’s spirit was lifted by a new fun job and relationship that feels life-giving. 
A young family of five talked of the hope of finding permanent housing, especially with a fourth child on the way. A volunteer shared organizational tips and spoke of being more intentional about letting friendships grow in difficult times.
   “Jesus did not have peace following His ministry,” team member Suzanne Zucca wrote afterward. “Quite the opposite, drama and devilish schemes followed Him continuously. But He WAS peace. He shushed the wind and the waves. He drove out demons and healed sickness. He shifted perspectives and brought the kingdom of heaven in exchange for the hell in people’s lives.
   “We carry the person of Christ in our bodies. Our job is to abide with Him and let Him abide with us enough privately that we overflow with His love, joy and peace publicly. The beauty of this is that no matter how scorching the circumstances around us may be, we have the Prince of Peace under our tent, and any who choose to engage with us will enjoy the peace and rest that exist in the oasis of His presence.”

Aug 22, 2021

Clients self-navigate to earn assistance in paying some bills


Thanks to one of the grants we received related to COVID response, we have funds available to help clients with their expenses for things like mobile phones and dental, medical and mental health care.
   There’s a catch: They must self-navigate to earn the benefit. We want them to take ownership, so we have developed a form typical of those used for online shopping, and a tool to help them complete it. They take responsibility for filling out the forms properly. Our team acts only as advisors. A committee of SYMin volunteers evaluates each and votes to accept or reject.
   So far, it’s working great! We’ve seen improvement as clients learn to "adult," check into their bills, look for extras they can remove, and become more independent. We love it!

Aug 15, 2021

Getting clients vaccinated continues to be a struggle!


Thanks to Austin Public Health, we were able to host four vaccination clinics outside our Drop-in Center in June and July, but we continue to struggle with an unvaccinated population of clients. 

We initially attracted 75% of the clients who visited, but the level dropped to 25% by the end.

Some clients still wanted to get vaccinated but have been refused at other locations for lacking IDs. We have tried to locate pharmacies with walk-in J&J but have yet to find satisfactory ones nearby, so we are calling for people who help to try to get clinics at the locations clients already frequent.

APH agreed to hold two more clinics this month, completing the first on Aug. 10, and ID's were not an issue. We will hold as many in coming weeks as we can. We think vaccines should be as accessible for homeless people as for others. We still offer gift card incentives for clients who bring us their completed vaccination cards!

Another important benefit of getting clients vaccinated is that it will open the door to moving them back inside our Drop-in Center for counseling, peer groups, social events and meals. We will always observe social distancing and mask-wearing as required.

Aug 10, 2021

New referral cards are handy help for clients


We’ve developed a new referral card system for topics our clients ask about most. The cards are made to hang on display hooks, and we place them in a rotation, with catchy titles and graphics.

   For example, for Sober Living, we have an Oxford House card that gives information about what to expect there.

   For College & Careers, we are developing cards for Austin Community College -- including how FAFSA works for our clients, enrolling in late start and finding college preparation classes.

   We are also creating cards for  the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center, which provides IDs and coordinated assessments; and Austin Integral Care, which provides support for mental illness, substance abuse and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

    We are open to other suggestions, plus we are happy to supply you with referral cards if you need them. Just use the link below.

Aug 8, 2021

SYMin helps partner distribute funding


Covenant Presbyterian Church, one of the SYMin's major donors, recently reached out to SYMin founder Terry Cole for guidance in distributing $100,000 in funds to organizations providing shelter and transitional beds for people experiencing homelessness.

   "Because of Street Youth, Terry has a great pulse on homelessness in Austin and understands what services help people ...," said Covenant mission director Whitney Bell. "I wanted to hear his perspective.”
Read about it by clicking on the link below:

Aug 2, 2021

Samples of Collaborator Help


We could not have made it through the years or the pandemic without our collaborators! Believe it or not, our ministry grew during the pandemic despite the deep changes.

The potential for our wonderful ministry together is much bigger than our staff. It’s truly an awesome opportunity in front of us! Here are just a few recent examples of how our partners gave valuable material and volunteer assistance:

   • Friends at Grace Presbyterian Church created great toiletry bags and brought them for clients.
   • Youth from Christ Church of Austin decorated our outside planters and made a new trash can for visitors.
   • Two Presbyterian church groups -- Shepherd of the Hills and Dripping Springs provided great help with Freedom Week in July.
   • Keep Austin Fed provided several delicious hot meals.

Jul 26, 2021

A tale of two types of clients in the aftermath of a pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck early in 2020, we had one set of clients who were housed. They hunkered down. Almost all lost jobs (if they had them). Most paid no rent. Many fell behind on bills. Most became dependent on support, which was ample once the initial shock of the pandemic arrival wore off.

Fortunately, we were able to connect with many of them to provide wrap-around services in the form of online groups like Heart to Heart (peer to peer), Bible Study, Prayer Time, Women’s and Men’s Groups. We offered extensive support via phone, text and Facebook Messenger.
Now that recovery has arrived, these clients are facing the need to move back to financial independence as support resources dwindle. Many have been late reacting to the change this summer. It’s clear that some are facing eviction.

As the pressure rises, so do mental and substance abuse challenges. We will continue to supply financial and grocery resources to this group until the funds run out, but our main responsibility is caring for their mental health and guiding them to restart their journey toward independence.
We have another set of clients who weathered the pandemic on the streets. They may have couch-surfed a while with the former group, but they have no home. They depend almost daily on support for food, clothing, and encouragement.

During the worst of the pandemic, the social support that might have provided an on-ramp to join the first group has been shuttered or limited. Housing placement has slowed to a crawl. Few in this group have phones; they may obtain them frequently, but they lose them quickly to the unstable nature of existence on the street.

This group has significant and deep substance abuse issues due to the easy street access to meth and K2, both of which severely interfere with the ability to build any type of stability and change. This group benefits from brief wrap-around services we supply in the form of chatting at our gate or on the sidewalk.
We continue to feed this group daily, but our main responsibility is helping them assess where they are and determine if and when they are ready for change. Services to put them into temporary housing will recover, however slowly in Austin.

We will find a way to resume in-person masked groups for this set of clients so we can get them dreaming of a better future. Decent options for recovery exist, but none are instant, always available or easy.

Jul 20, 2021

As clients learn to “adult,” their paths lead to success!

 Wrap-around services are key

Nick beamed from ear to ear. He had worn out his shoes on his construction job, saved first and last months’ rent and was ready to lease his very own apartment! 
He lived on the streets, worked and was setting his life right again!

Andrea sat on our corner, completely broken. He had torched his tent in the woods the night before. He wanted a fresh start and to quit methamphetamines. We discussed it, but he wasn’t ready yet. He wanted to go to college to learn film-making, stay sober, have a place to live, and recover from abusive parents and relationships. The more he talked about it, though, the more he knew he wasn’t ready, so he returned to hiding, hoping to avoid the legal challenges of being homeless until he was better prepared for change.

It's so exciting to watch clients find their way, but it can be heart-breaking to walk with them while they seem so lost. Recovery happens much more often than the anecdotes we hear lead us to believe. Most of our clients recover! Rejoice in that great news! We know that because our relationships with clients span years and years, and they are such a joy! Our clients are strong, and they are survivors! Guidance and encouragement go a long way to easing their paths.

Some organizations offer our clients free, HUD-sponsored housing, no strings attached. That gives young homeless adults a chance to experience apartment living. Initially, the housing was for six months, but that proved too short a time. At the end of that period, half the clients had improved outcomes but were not yet stable. Quite a few said they were worse off. Many told us the system should have been more selective about who was offered housing.

Partly at our urging, HUD adapted its program. We asked for two innovations suggested by clients: lengthier stays and mandatory wrap-around mentoring. HUD rejected the latter but eventually agreed to 36 months of housing support. We reasoned that’s a period similar to what college students need to mature and find their way. We hoped our clients would accept a year of voluntary mentoring that was part of the program and be stable by the end of their free housing. Unfortunately, none of them accepted the mentoring portion of the program.(As a result, SYMin stepped up efforts to reach housed clients and focused more on guidance and mentoring for them.) The 36 months of free housing are over for many now. Some remain housed, but others chose to return to homelessness due to overall instabilities, just as the clients themselves predicted. Importantly, however, it did set some on the right path.

Robert remained housed for a year, in an apartment beset by rodents and mold. He then decided living in a tent was better, left his apartment and still lives hidden in the woods. However, 
in the last 24 months, Robert has managed to stay sober for increasing lengths of time, has worked hard to avoid violent friends and enter better social circles, and has kept a job for more than a year. He is charting his own course into adulting, and he’s making considerable progress!
Rebecca remained housed for the full 36 months. She was working initially but found she really didn't need to. She battled depression but didn't seek counseling. She renewed relationships with family members but had difficulty keeping them on healthy footings. Her 36 months ultimately expired. Now she works, rents her own place, goes to church, has new, healthy social circles and maintains healthier boundaries with people. It may not be a straight line, but she is charting a path to recovery.

Several clients have had free housing multiple times. Even after failing, they received no special guidance or monitoring to help make it work. Each time, their unstable behaviors caught up with them. They either walked away from housing or were evicted for lease violations. Each homeless cycle seemed to teach them they were failures, but we know that’s not true. They regret their decisions but lack the discipline to do anything else on their own. While on the streets, we see them set goals, work and achieve them all the time, but the free housing trips them up because there are no conditions or limits set.

Unfortunately, there are few options between no-strings-attached free housing and making it on their own. We believe there should be. We pray for legal camping. We pray for safe boarding houses to make a comeback. 
We pray for safe, shorter-term, transitional apartments with required mentoring. We pray for Oxford Houses. We pray for strongly led cooperatives. We pray for housing with options for community support. No single option will work for every street youth. No single agency will have all the answers in terms of housing, sobriety, employment, mental health or guidance. We pray for a compassionate system -- one that listens to the youth and gives them step-wise options and safety along their journeys to recovery.
Learning to adult is difficult, but we continue to applaud the vast majority of clients who make progress and succeed like Nick, Robert and Rebecca. And we continue to advocate for safe, more immediate options for clients like Andrea. The HUD program is great for some. Community First! (a rent-paying housing community) works for some. Oxford House works for some. Austin Community College and employment work for some. Counseling for substance abuse or mental health works for some. Some just need more time and a "safe-enough" place to continue exploring options before they take their first steps.
We are so blessed to be a part of the solution -- with your help. "We know you care. That’s what makes you different": those words from clients are the truth, and so important for them to know. You are a blessing to so many, and we are blessed in return! 

— Terry