One organization in Austin, TX attributes homelessness to a ‘catastrophic loss of community,’ so they set out to build one.

By Jim Tuttle

Past Stories, Uncategorized
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Click the “play” icon on the image above to watch a short film about Esperanza Community and The Other Ones Foundation.

Jimmy James learned about the Esperanza Community by googling “Texas homeless camps.” He’d been living on the streets of Houston for about three years, and the challenges of that lifestyle nearly brought him to a breaking point. After being reassured by a friend who had visited the place, he bought a tent and moved to Austin on December 1, 2020.

When he arrived, Jimmy found an encampment of roughly 150 people living in tents and temporary shelters on a sprawling, flat slab of asphalt off U.S. 183 that was once a Texas Department of Transportation storage lot. The state’s governor, Greg Abbott, designated the site for camping in late 2019 in an effort to divert unhoused people from downtown Austin.

By the time Jimmy moved to the community, it was also home to The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), an organization that provides low-barrier income opportunities, hygiene facilities, and case management for Austin’s unhoused neighbors. TOOF relocated their office to the growing encampment in the summer of 2020, working in partnership with the residents and other organizations to create a safe community where people could access crucial support services.

As a result of this collaboration, the encampment evolved into the Esperanza Community — named through popular vote by the people living there, and guided by a similarly elected leadership committee of residents. Since their arrival as stewards of the site, TOOF has added a community kitchen, shower trailers, a clinic, an air-conditioned recreation room, space for on-site case management, and more than 30 temporary shelters for the community’s most vulnerable residents. 

“I think this is going to prove to be a model of a safe and dignified place where people can get out of the streets and work through the system to find housing,” said Max Moscoe, TOOF’s communications manager.

That has already borne out for many Esperanza residents, including Jimmy. After living at Esperanza Community for about nine months, he was able to move into permanent housing about eight miles away, in Community First! Village, a 51-acre planned community that provides affordable homes and support for people coming out of chronic homelessness.

“I can’t believe that, after all this time, I’m finally getting a place to live,” he said. “This has saved me, so I owe a lot to the foundation. If it wasn’t for them, I’d still be in Houston on the streets.”   

The Esperanza Community continues to evolve. In September, TOOF and partners broke ground on a critical new phase: the construction of a transitional housing complex, which will eventually include 200 individual tiny homes — insulated, lockable, and outfitted with electricity and air conditioning. Tents have been cleared from the lot, and many residents are now living in local hotels while construction continues.

“The cause of homelessness is a catastrophic loss of community,” Moscoe said, “and the antidote is to build a community. So that’s what we’re doing out here.”

Esperanza Community resident Donald “Hippie” Montgomery stands in the asphalt lot that has been his home since December 1, 2019. He’s well known in the community and has served as a resident liaison and member of the resident advisory committee since The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF) began working to improve conditions and provide services here. “This is the relief valve, the pressure valve that takes the edge off of homelessness and really and truly allows people to get involved in the services and assistance that they may need,” Montgomery said. “And we all need a little help once in a while.”
Laundry dries on a fence behind a row of tents at Esperanza Community. “When we first came out here, there was just a lack of access to electricity, water. The sanitation was poor,” TOOF Communications Manager Max Moscoe said. ”It’s just a big flat plot of asphalt. And so if it’s the summer, the asphalt’s 150 degrees, and if it’s the rainy season, it’s flash-flooding. There’s no good time of year to live on seven acres of asphalt in Texas.”
Hippie uses a makeshift shower made of wooden pallets and a garden hose. Among other improvements, TOOF brought shower trailers to the site when the organization moved its operations to Esperanza. The plan for future construction includes eight bathroom facilities with showers. 
Hippie works on a list of talking points in his tent. “Communications is the greater part of my job as resident liaison here in the Esperanza Community,” he said. “I’m honored, blessed, and proud to do it, and I’m going to keep doing it until I wear out.”
Jimmy James packs up the last of his things on the day he moves into permanent housing at Community First! Village. “I can’t believe that, after all this time, I’m finally getting a place to live,” he said.
Jimmy James sits on the porch of his temporary shelter at Esperanza Community, where he’s lived since December 1, 2020. Before that, James, now 66-years-old, lived on the streets in Houston for about three years. “I couldn’t stay on the streets much longer, and I thought, ‘Well, let me try to go there and try to make it and see if they’ll help me,’” James said. “And so I packed my stuff and I went and bought a tent and I came out here, and it’s been good for me ever since.”
The first elected Resident Leadership Committee for Esperanza Community wraps up a meeting with Chris Baker (center), founder and executive director of The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF). “We try to not make a lot of decisions without consulting the residents here,” said Max Moscoe, communications manager for TOOF. “A lot of folks staying out here have been having many facets of their life be dictated from outside of them. And at some point, people need autonomy.”
Jessica Rollason and Ana Kurzan of the Austin-based architecture firm Gensler lead a meeting with residents to discuss proposed designs for a new transitional housing complex at Esperanza Community.
Esperanza Community resident Donald “Hippie” Montgomery (left) discusses ideas to improve living conditions at the site with Chris Baker, founder and executive director of TOOF. “I have never seen a bureaucracy as agile and responsive, as capable, as my friends in The Other Ones Foundation,” Montgomery said. “Something I’m astounded at is that they ask for my opinion, they listen, and then, most of the time, they take it. And how often does that happen?”
Pastor George Crisp (center) prays during a memorial service for two men who died in their tents in the summer of 2020 at Esperanza Community.
Hippie plays guitar outside his tent. “When asked about my religion, I tell people I’m a Rasta-Zen-Catholic,” he said. “Just being a hippie and loving everybody, I was kind of born to it. So then when the beard grew out, I just let it ride. People started calling me Hippie, and I like it.”
Jimmy James settles into his new home at Community First! Village with his dogs, Wanda (left) and April. James lived at Esperanza Community for about nine months, while a caseworker helped him complete the necessary steps to successfully apply for permanent housing. “My mistakes were so bad that no one wants me to live in their apartments or their homes,” he said. “But I’ve changed. People change.”