Affordable Housing Update- Week 4

This past week Garrett and I have been going to the ARCH and speaking with individuals around the outside of the building about their experiences with housing in Austin. This was the first time in my life that I was actually asking individuals experiencing homeless to tell me their stories. I’ve worked with this population in the past, but never in this capacity. We’ve interviewed around eight individuals outside of the the ARCH over this time, for this post I’ll focus on David’s story.

David was part of the post- Katrina evacuation from New Orleans (NO). He’d been in NO since 1987, the year right after he finished college. During that time he keep a steady job, he had a fiance and daughter, and he started to develop some alcoholism and substance abuse issues as well. He fiance keep the roof over his and his daughter head.

In 2005 when Katrina hit, David spoke of such disaster I couldn’t fathom the experience. He said the water reached 18 feet where he was, there were “bodies floating in the water”; and they left a lot of people in the retirement homes. David felt “there was nothing left in New Orleans” after Katrina.

A few days after Katrina hit, FEMA picked him up on a bus and took him to the NO airport. There he only experienced more trauma. The airport was over crowded with what felt like millions of people, there was fecal matter everywhere. At that time the US government sent in regional police forces and some kind of militarized units, which David politely referred to as “red necked police”.

David arrived at the airport at 7am on his first day, then by 5am the next he was in a military equipment aircraft headed to somewhere else. He said he was chained on the plane, the experience was ‘dehumanizing’. No one was told where the plane was headed until they were 20 minutes into the flight, when there was a overhead speaker that said “Houston is at capacity, we will be flying to Austin instead”.

The aircraft arrived at Camp Mabry, David and the others on the flight were welcome by Austin’s then mayor, Will Wynn. From then on out, it was a total party. As he explained it, they were offered every service available after that, from $1,500 from FEMA to free food and drinks offered at the Austin Convention Center for individuals. He said all the volunteers were pleasant and helpful in getting him what he needed.

After arriving in Austin his Fiance managed to find him an apartment in Rungberg, where he lived for 2005 –  2008. During this time there were two key aspects of his life that David highlighted. First it was the fact that FEMA keep paying for his electricity bill. Secondly he had three ladies living with him to cover the expenses such as rent and water. These ladies all of which were into illegal substances, David also partook. At some point, he began using the money from FEMA to purchase the drugs, this lead him to no longer have electricity. He also at some point kicked out one of the ladies who was living with him, and be believes she then told the authorities that he was not using the FEMA money for his electricity bill. FEMA then sent someone to inspect the house, when the inspector saw he wasn’t keeping the electricity on, FEMA gave him a charge againsts the misuse of funds. David found a service in Austin that would pay for his ticked from FEMA, but David was five minutes late to his appeal and by that point it was too late, the damage had been done.

After that David found himself out on the streets, “my first week of being homeless happened on Obama’s inauguration”. He spent the first week around ARCH, but didn’t see any services. After his first week, David realized how dangerous it was to be on the street, so he started sleeping inside the ARCH.

David spent from 2008 to 2016 on the streets, during the day he would get food from a variety of sources; the Trinity Center, Caristas, ARCH, Mobile Loaves and Fishes or “any place will feed you if you tell them you’re hungry and homeless.” David’s substance issues only increased during this time, he said he would drink a 12 pack of Lonestar tallboys a day.

Around a month ago, David had finished his tallboys and he “got in a fight with the concrete”, which he lost. He ended up being taken to Brackenridge hospital, where they found his arm had been broke. While in the hospital he took the Coordinated Assessment test. This test is meant to figure out the probability an individual has of dying on the streets. Davis scored very high on this test, he scored so high that he was able to be put in the rapid rehousing program. This meant that David would be housed in a first avaliable situation, then any other barriers he’s working on, would be worked through later. Since David’s accident, he’s been living in an apartment supplied to him by ARCH. He continued to go to the ARCH for community and for regular check ins with his caseworker.

David’s story challenged my notions of what happened after Katrina, his experience was completely new to me. He said part of his trauma manifested into PTSD afterwards. I can’t understand what that would feel like, but I can try to empathize. The second surprising piece was how long David had experienced homelessness, from 2008 -2016. 8 years of life outside on the street. During this time he learned so much about the ongoings outside of ARCH. He spoke about them a little during our interview. Specifically how the police come 30 times a day, all just as scare tactics. David was also well liked by many, several times throughout the interview people would stop and speak with him, each with a good natured hello and how you doing? The ARCH was where David found community. I wonder how he copes with leaving his community behind after he moved. Did he experience guilt for leaving others behind? Questions I can’t help but think of now, after the interview. David was a fascinating individual, I hope our project does him and his story justice.