May 13, 2020

Amid Downsizing, Foundation Finds Ways to Serve Homeless

Reporting Texas

Chris Baker started The Other Ones Foundation with an emphasis on fighting homelessness by building community.

When it formed in 2017, the goal was to build a fleet of mobile homeless shelters that could be moved around the city as needed. While that dream has not yet come to fruition, TOOF is currently focused on its Workforce First program, a low-barrier employment program in partnership with the city parks department.

In October 2019, the foundation signed a $720,000 contract with the city of Austin to provide jobs clearing litter and invasive species from parks as an alternative to panhandling for those living on the streets. The foundation had previously signed a contract to clear litter with the city, for $180,000, in October 2018.

By March, the Workforce First program had cleared nearly 300,000 pounds of trash and paid out over $250,000 in earned income to people experiencing homelessness. Four work crews employed roughly 30 people a day, with a waitlist of about 200.

Then COVID-19 arrived.

“I think the hardest thing really is that we’re always focusing on talking about building community as the main goal of our operation,” said Max Moscoe, community engagement coordinator for TOOF. “And social distancing makes that difficult, if not impossible. Like I accept you, but stand over there. Those are very conflicting and contradictory things, and unfortunately those are the kinds of thing we’re having to say right now.”

Max Moscoe, community engagement coordinator for The Other Ones Foundation, in his office on March 3, 2020. Conner Copland/Reporting Texas

TOOF builds that community by offering a day shelter at their main office behind Oak Hill United Methodist Church on U.S. Highway 290 West as well as their Workforce First program. However, as with many operations across the globe, TOOF has had to change its ways due to the current pandemic.

While some of their operations have downsized, they’ve also managed to launch a brand new mobile hygiene clinic.

“It’s a really good thing that they’re doing this, because no one else would,” said Eddie Buls. He had been in and out of homelessness for the past 20 years when he came to The Other Ones Foundation. Now he’s a work crew supervisor and has his own apartment again.

“Everyone needs a little cash at least,” Buls said. “I was able to pay for myself. I didn’t have to go out and fly a sign and look stupid because I hate that.”

When the city closed down at the beginning of April, TOOF had to stop offering a shuttle service that picked clients up from the Manchaca and 290 intersection, drove them to the day’s worksite, then to the foundation’s main office and day shelter, where they would be paid in cash for the day and be able to shower and do laundry before returning to the starting point.

Eddie Buls, crew leader for the Workforce First program, stands next to the trailer where workers place trash bags from a cleanup site on March 12, 2020. Conner Copland/Reporting Texas

“That was a bummer,” Moscoe said, “because that was one of the things that really made this job possible for a lot of people.”

Now only one crew goes out three days a week to work in the parks. Similarly, the foundation had to limit the number of people allowed into the day shelter to 10 at a time.

“You get a lot of people wanting to come out,” said Jamie Crowley, who oversees many of the services offered by TOOF. “That’s been the hardest part—not really being able to service all the people that I need to or want or would like to.”

Crowley had come to Texas after hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2019, and, like many of the employees around the foundation, he was homeless when he started working there. Now he has a full-time position at the foundation and his own apartment again.

But it hasn’t just been closures and downsizing. The foundation has also launched Box of Rain, a mobile hygiene clinic that provides showers, toilets, essential hygiene and first-aid supplies for those experiencing homelessness.

“A lot of people rely on bathrooms around the city of places that are now closed,” Moscoe said. “So just like your life and my life have been wildly disrupted by this, the lives of our homeless community have been turned upside down by COVID-19, and so in order to provide a humanitarian response to the pandemic we rolled out the mobile hygiene clinic.”

The shower trailer sets up at six different locations, six days a week. And the trailers offer the foundation a way to continue providing employment for many of the guys who worked on the Workforce First crews that were shut down because of the coronavirus.

“It’s definitely proved to be a need,” Moscoe said. “People need the services, and it’s still providing employment for the people that are running the crew, so I think our goal is to keep it going [after the pandemic]. It’s been so moment by moment since this whole thing started that we kind of haven’t formulated a very cut and dry long-term plan, but I’m sure that we’re going to aim to keep it going.”

As the city begins to reopen, The Other Ones Foundation is making plans to have all four work crews return to work by May 21 and hopes that the day shelter can return to its normal capacity by the end of the month.