COVID-19 changes homelessness relief efforts in Austin

Santino Camacho

People experiencing homelessness in Austin are facing a lack of public resources and closed kitchens during the COVID-19 pandemic, making access to services more difficult.

Local organizations and the city of Austin are changing the way they provide relief to continue to provide resources for people experiencing homelessness. 

Amy Price, the director of development and communications for Front Steps, an organization that aids people experiencing homelessness, said she noticed that nonprofits serving meals began to shut down in March, and in a few weeks, people were going hungry. Since then, volunteer groups have been working with the city of Austin to provide support during COVID-19, Price said. 

“The city of Austin works with all of the nonprofits,” Price said. “As soon as COVID-19 became a reality in our community, you had city health departments, parks departments, police, everybody convening with the directors to talk about what the immediate needs were.”

Price said the city of Austin is the main group that helps people experiencing homelessness because they have access to more resources than nonprofits. The city set up portable restrooms along 15th and 35th streets during the pandemic for people experiencing homelessness who have had their local restrooms shut down due to COVID-19, Price said.

The UT community is also adapting efforts to aid people experiencing homelessness. Home Cooked Fridays is a partnership between the Johnson Center for Child Health and Development, a local medical and research center, and faith-based organizations that supply meals to people experiencing homelessness. It switched from communal gatherings to to-go sack lunches, said Kelly Barnhill, head of Home Cooked Fridays. 

“We provided them a community,” Barnhill said. “Our volunteers sat down with them, talked with them, and that was really important. Obviously, now, we can’t do that anymore.”

In August, nutrition junior Antony Rodriguez, a Home Cooked Fridays volunteer, raised $1,468.25 with the help of the Mutual Aid Collective ATX, a fundraising and community organization led by UT students, to purchase grocery gift cards and bus passes.

“We found that every Friday, we’d run out of cards,” Rodriguez said. “I felt bad. There are people who take two to three buses to come to get one gift card. I got a lot of support from people, and the donations came in. (Mutual Aid Collective ATX) … gave me a big donation, like $1,000.”

Rodriguez said he is beginning to raise money again for more grocery gift cards.