Community works to tackle homelessness in Ben White corridor

AUSTIN (KXAN) — You may see them on your way to work, or in parks: homeless people panhandling or sleeping under overpasses.

Residents in a South Austin neighborhood say they’re concerned the problem is getting worse in their backyards, specifically the Ben White corridor.

While Austin police say they believe the problem has improved over the years, some neighbors say more work needs to be done.

A nearby church is working to do their part to help the homeless in the area.

“They need a place to go, they’re going to go somewhere,” said Pastor Mark Hilbelink. “And if the bridge is the last possible place to go, that’s where they’re going to go.”

Hilbelink has been the pastor of Sunrise Community Church for the past six years.

He admits they ignored the homeless population for a while, until they couldn’t anymore.

“We finally said we can’t pretend the problem is going to go away and calling police, we need to do something,” said Pastor Hilbelink.

So about a year-and-a-half ago, they did do something. At certain hours of the day, homeless people can come to the church and just hang out.

They can receive food, clothing and even an address. “The church here has helped me out giving me an address to have my mail go to, have my ID sent to,” said Leeana Anderson, who’s been homeless for a few months. “Pastor Mark helped me buy my ID. Without that, I probably would have been SOL.”

The church also helps members of the population start the process of housing, they provide showers a few days a week and offer medical assistance.

“By knowing the homeless community, we actually can help to disarm the potential problems that may be out there.”

The pastor says they’ve helped 15-25 people get off the streets.

But despite their best efforts, some neighbors say they’re frustrated. “I think we all feel a little helpless,” said Leann Land, President of the Western Trails Neighborhood Association. “Increasingly over the years it’s gotten worse. And I guess particularly we notice it at the intersections over here, panhandling is out of control.”

She says their park, which is right next to a school, doesn’t always feel safe.

“Coming to the park here, I guess it’s a good place for them to eat, hang out, drink, sleep,” said Land. “Sometimes it can seem like they own it and not us and so it’s hard for my neighbors and myself to enjoy it.”

Officer Robert Barboza has been with Austin Police for 20 years, patrolling the neighborhood.

“I bet at least 50 percent of my complaints are probably homeless related, the entire Ben White corridor,” said Officer Barboza. “Being from homeless camps, to them hanging out underneath Ben White and Manchaca, consuming alcohol.”

However, Barboza believes there are less homeless people in the district compared to a few years ago.

Some neighbors have expressed concerns that the church may be drawing in more homeless people, but those on the streets say the church is helping.

“Tolerance and love,” says Obadiah Lynch, who’s been living on the streets for several years. “Homeless people keep getting pushed from one community to the next, no one wants to deal with the homeless, the man on the street corner, want to pretend it goes away. It’s not going away, it’s getting worse. More people are losing their jobs, more people are becoming homeless that don’t know how to deal with it.”

Smith says if the church wasn’t providing service, the problem wouldn’t go away. He says he personally tries to lead by example in the homeless community, picking up his own trash and picking up after others.

Pastor Hilbelink says the church met with community members in December, talking about their efforts to help homeless people take the next step to get out of homelessness.

Austin police say every month they work with TxDOT to clean-up the Ben White corridor.

As far as violations, they can give camping citations, as well as citations for drinking alcohol within 1,000 feet of a school.

However, it is legal to hang out under the overpass. If you’d like to help Sunrise Community Church, they’re currently asking for bus passes.

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