Updated: May 2, 2012
By Sarah Vasquez
South by Southwest (SXSW) takes over Austin every year as it seems it’s all everyone talks and hears about. However, this year, one group from the Austin homeless community created quite a buzz during the festival.
The “charitable experiment at SXSWi” Homeless Hotspots stirred things up when people wearing shirts saying “I’m ______, a 4G Hotspot” stood around the festival offering 4G network access for 15 minutes at a suggested $2 donation. Some bloggers and journalists went to their keyboards to share their disapproval in the employment idea by BHH Labs, the marketing advertising company in NY. National Public Radio (NPR) captured some of those responses on their tumblr.
However, some felt the program brought attention to the issue of homelessness, whether good or bad press.
“We are all so grateful we had this opportunity,” Mitchell Gibbs, Front Steps director of development and communications, said in a post on Texas Monthly’s TM Daily Post. “Overall our community is hearing a whole lot more about homelessness then maybe (it) would have otherwise, and we’re having the conversation on a national scale that we didn’t anticipate being fortunate enough to have a few days ago.”
That Texas Monthly post also brought to light other job opportunities for the homeless community such as Street Treats run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF), ReWork Project and other Austin-area businesses. The participants sell ice cream on a vending cart bicycle for as little as one dollar.
MLF is a non-profit organization that provides various services for the homeless community, including employment. Alan Graham, president, said that the organization recognizes that there are entrepreneurs standing on the street corners. He thinks of it as when you walk into Mexico. There are people selling things all around, whether it’s a girl selling little Chiclets or a person selling tacos. The thing to notice is that people are working.
He said there are people working in the U.S. and that we used to have that type of model, but there are regulations now for these types of jobs like, for example, with lemonade stands.
So what MLF does, according to Graham, is create entrepreneurial opportunities such as Street Treats and Clean Slate, which offers employment through car washes. MLF provides the infrastructure such the carts to carry the ice cream and takes care of the needed paperwork.
“That way if you want to go and sell ice cream today, you can,” said Graham.
Street Treats project debuted at this year’s SXSW as well as Homeless Hotspots and Graham said that it had a tremendous impact. So far, it has helped one person from the homeless community with two more on the way. Graham said they want to scale it so it will make an impact, but right now the program is small. So MLF’s focus is to show that it works.
“Everybody loves it. Everybody loves it when people are working,” said Graham.
On the ReWork Project website, it said that many people who experience homelessness want to work, but need opportunity and encouragement.
ReWork Project offers services such as workshops, job searching and training for the homeless community. Nate Schlueter, program manager for ReWork Project, said that they create opportunities to help them earn extra money as opposed to panhandling.
Through the workshops, people can create birdhouses, coffee tables, furniture, pottery, etc. which is sold through a consignment with local furniture store Revival. Looking through the website, some of the furniture that have been made and sold in the past include dressers, desks and chairs. They help them sell the products, and the person gets all the profits.
Schlueter said that it’s half and half with the experience from the people who come to these workshops.
“Some of them are really, really talented on their own when they come in the door,” said Schlueter.
People can come in at their convenience when ReWork Project is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Schlueter said that he participates in this organization to build relationships with the community as they build their crafts.
“It gives us a right to share a life together,” said Schlueter.
ReWork Project is currently trying to open their own gallery at the South Congress location, but the retail section is not done yet. Once it is open, people can come in and purchase the products produced by the homeless community directly.
Starting a new life
There are also services in Austin that help the homeless find permanent employment. Pete Salazar, employment specialist at Caritas of Austin, said that basically what they do is prepare the person with the skills needed to reenter the workplace.
Salazar said that they helped them in a job search and place them into jobs, which are normally in the hotel or restaurant industries. Those two are some of the largest industries in Austin with jobs for this community. But Salazar said there isn’t a real typical job though. Some of the people they serve are returning veterans and have gotten security jobs. One client got a job as a butcher.
“It really depends on the individual,” said Salazar.
A person runs through different steps through the program. Caritas first provides housing and then gets them mentally prepared for the workforce and deal with the new income. Some may be dealing with substance abuse issues or educational issues, or some may have large work gaps in their employment histories.
“We try to address all those issues,” said Salazar.
The person prepares for employment and the expectations that Caritas puts on them. Salazar said that he wants them to be as prepared as possible to reenter the workforce and helps them things like time management.
But once it’s all said and done, the person enters their new job.
“The good thing about our services is they’re not homeless anymore,” said Salazar.