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Building a foundation to solve homelessness in the Highland Lakes

Homelessness in the Highland Lakes

While people may think they know what homelessness looks like, Kevin Naumann of the Highland Lakes Crisis Network believes they might not truly understand the issue. In the Highland Lakes, homelessness isn’t as visible as in larger cities because families and individuals dealing with it ‘hide’ it well, from spending nights in their cars to moving from couch to couch in relatives' homes. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

In November 2019, five families watched their homes burn. Four of the families did not have insurance. All five were temporarily homeless, a situation that, depending on how things fall, can become long term.

“Something like that sometimes starts a spiral,” said Kevin Naumann, president of the Highland Lakes Crisis Network. “They’ve lost their jobs and are down on their luck. They need a leg up.”

All of the families were able to get back on their feet, but others are not so fortunate.

While not as noticeable as in Austin, the Highland Lakes has a homeless population. It’s an issue organizations such as the HLCN and Highland Lakes Haven are trying to address.

Started in 2018, Highland Lakes Haven is a nonprofit ministry that works to provide housing for the homeless. The Highland Lakes Crisis Network, formed after the October 2018 flood, is a group of churches meeting the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the community during times of crisis and disaster.

“The Crisis Network is seeing the big picture of crisis as a whole,” Naumann said. “We identify where the needs are.”

Naumann said leaders wanted the network’s mission to be “broadly defined.” It focused on homelessness because the issue continually comes up in conversations with city, county, and educational leaders.

In December, 63 students at Marble Falls Independent School District were identified as homeless. In addition to the meals these students receive on campus, staff who know of their situations also help by cleaning their clothes in district-owned washers and dryers.

“We have ways of taking care of personal hygiene, clothing, and food needs that show enough discretion to maintain the dignity of the child,” MFISD Superintendent Chris Allen said.

In city parks and elsewhere in Marble Falls, homeless families are living in vehicles. The Rev. Ellen Ely of First United Methodist Church lets the families living in the creek behind the Bluebonnet Drive property use the church’s address to receive mail.

Naumann praised these efforts to help struggling neighbors.

“This is a great community,” he said. “People are unbelievable and know we need to take care of the least of them.”

He knows it will take a community effort to help raise the homeless out of their current situations and find them permanent housing. That’s why it made sense to Naumman, who also serves as president of the MFISD Board of Trustees, for the Crisis Network to partner with Highland Lakes Haven.

Highland Lakes Haven recently purchased a trailer and invited a family to stay in it for three months “while they’re helping that family get on their feet,” Naumann said.

The two organizations met with leaders of 13 different churches, the Texas Housing Authority, Camp of the Hills, and MFISD on January 6 to discuss homelessness in the city and the surrounding area. At that meeting, they learned the number of homeless MFISD students had jumped to 80.

“I think that when people hear that, they’re surprised at how high that number is,” Allen said. “You’d never know by looking at them. There’s not necessarily a profile of homelessness.”

“Everybody is talking about the need,” Naumann said. “You can see how rapidly that’s changing.”

The school district uses the federal definition of homelessness: a student without a permanent dwelling. That could mean the student and his or her family is living in the home of a relative or friend.

“It’s a broader definition than simply thinking about people who are living in their cars and sleeping in the park at night,” Allen said. 

School personnel are trained to look for the signs of homelessness. The district relies on school nurses and bus drivers as its best observers. They might notice things such as a student wearing the same clothing several times a week or bringing an unusually high number of personal items with them to school.

Homelessness has a profound impact on a city in the present and the future.

Students who worry about what they’ll eat for dinner or where they’ll sleep and bathe often struggle to give their full attention in class. Without an education, it’s difficult to find a good job.

“Homelessness almost always is associated with poverty,” Allen said. “It’s a fact that can lead to a lack of opportunities.”

Homelessness in the Highland Lakes
Marble Falls Independent School District Superintendent Chris Allen knows the Highland Lakes has a homeless issue because he sees it firsthand on the campuses. The district has identified about 80 of its students as homeless because they don’t have permanent housing. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

MFISD has created steps to help displaced or homeless students or those whose families are struggling financially. The district set up programs to assist with hunger, hygiene, and even ACT and SAT fees.

“You can’t really learn if you don’t have the basic sustainable characteristics for life,” the superintendent said. “It’s heartwarming to see the number of people who are willing to make this part of the conversation.” 

Naumann said some nonprofits and charities will pay for hotel rooms for those in need.

“There’s no telling how much money people spend on hotel rooms,” Naumann said. “People bounce from charity to charity to get them hotel rooms from week to week.”

Highland Lakes Haven and Highland Lakes Crisis Network leaders agree longterm solutions will take more work. This includes assisting with mental health services, alcohol and drug dependency programs, job training, driver’s license and other government document applications, and general educational development and personal finance.

The HLCN takes a personal approach to helping people by using “shepherds,” specially trained volunteers who work one on one with individuals or families. They act as liaisons between the families and case workers, who also are assigned to a homeless family or person.

“The shepherd is … the advocate who meets weekly with the person. They communicate to the case manager the needs,” Naumann said. “The case manager builds the case to get that person to where they want to go. The case manager is behind the scenes. That person does the work in the background to get the person the resources.”

The Crisis Network’s shepherd program proved valuable after the October 2018 flood. The volunteers helped many flood victims through the arduous task of rebuilding their homes and lives.

The HLCN continues to develop relationships with nonprofits such as Highland Lakes Haven and others that meet the needs of the homeless, Naumann said. The groups are looking for land to add more housing for homeless families.

“If we had the funds, we could do something quickly,” he said.

Other needs are people who have equipment and homebuilding know-how.

To Naumman, addressing homelessness requires the help of the entire community and, sometimes, people making different choices.

“There’s not any one organization that can solve this,” Naumann said. “People have to be willing to change. If they’re making the same poor choices, it’s hard to help that. But we’re called to love people until it hurts. The wins make it worth it.”

Anyone interested in helping may contact the Highland Lakes Crisis Network or Highland Lakes Haven through their websites.