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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series titled “Small Towns, Big Changes” that launched in the August issue of The Picayune Magazine. The series delves into the facts and figures behind the rapid development in the Highland Lakes and what it means for the people who call this region home, whether newcomers or longtime locals. 

Homelessness looks different in the Highland Lakes than in Austin, but without a long-term strategy for breaking the cycle of poverty, that could soon change, said Kevin Naumann, executive director of the Highland Lakes Crisis Network.

“Anecdotally, we have recognized more homelessness since the pandemic than we did before,” he said. “The pandemic and the loss of jobs, the financial instability, have made people more desperate than they’ve ever been. They haven’t really recovered from that. It’s worse than it’s been.” 

Naumann’s organization is a network of local churches and volunteers that assist people through crises, including homelessness, hunger, and natural disasters. He tapped on the pages of the August issue of The Picayune Magazine, which was open to the first story of a series, “Small Towns, Big Changes”, on growth in the Highland Lakes. Yellow-highlighted sentences stood out. The marked passages focused on the growing income disparity between longtime residents and newcomers. 

“That’s what has created such a sense of urgency for us,” Naumann said. “Many people in our area, they don’t understand the differentiation between our style of life and what many people on our back door are having to live with on a day-to-day basis.”

According to a sample monthly budget he put together, a family with one child living in a one-bedroom apartment for the current rate of $1,100 a month would need to make $3,800 a month to break even. That equates to just over $22 an hour.

Naumann then pointed to 2023 U.S. Census Bureau figures: 10 percent of Burnet County’s population of around 50,000 live at or below the poverty level. Llano County figures are similar, he said. As defined by the federal government, a family with at least one child that makes $27,000 a year is living at the poverty level. 

“Well, that’s $13.50 an hour,” Naumann said. “That’s what most of the people who come through our door make, and they need to be making double that amount to afford their budget. And that doesn’t take into account just one thing going wrong. Many people are just one thing away from finding themselves without the ability to get back on their feet.” 

According to figures from the three public independent school districts in the area, 67 percent of the students in Marble Falls ISD are economically disadvantaged as defined by the federal government. The numbers are no better in Burnet Consolidated ISD (53 percent) and Llano ISD (65 percent). That’s a total of about 5,600 kids. 

Since 2018, the Highland Lakes Crisis Network has been working with families in need to provide them with tools and support to maintain financial stability. In some cases, the nonprofit encourages people to quit their jobs and concentrate on training and education that could help them find higher-paying employment. 

“We ask them to work with us for six months or more, so that 18 months from now, they can be sustainable and they are not in the constant cycle of needing support,” he said. 

St. Peter’s Lutheran Church
In September 2022, members of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Marble Falls collected 46 suitcases for youths staying in the Children Without Placement facility, a joint project of the Highland Lakes Crisis Network and the Marble Falls Independent School District. Children without placement are in the foster care system but have no foster homes available to them. Courtesy photo

Naumann and the HLCN are currently working toward a series of transitional steps that will give people even more time and space to learn, regroup, and succeed.

“What we need is about 50 to 100 acres within 5 miles of town where we can build a shelter environment, where you can take a family right now and give them a place to stay that is safe,” he said. “Then, they can transition from that place to maybe some tiny homes where there are environmental controls. So much of this is environmental. It’s too easy to fall back into what they’ve always known because it’s what they’ve always done.” 

A shelter, or dormitory, environment would allow the Crisis Network to evaluate a family’s or individual’s challenges and find the right resources to help them. Once they are out of crisis, more long-term solutions would be sought, those that could lead to purchasing a place of their own. 

“Then, maybe they can buy a tiny home, an RV, or a house where they can build generational equity,” Naumann said. “That by itself is never attainable for any of these people we’re talking about. Everything they’re making is going right back out.”

This type of housing could also work for youths aging out of the foster system who have no place to turn to once they are 18. It could also work for people living on the street. 

According to Naumann, at least 20 people in Marble Falls have no home and are sleeping under bridges, along creeks, and in parks. They are mostly single men in their 40s and 50s.

At the moment, the Highland Lakes Crisis Network concentrates on families in crisis because of the importance of breaking the generational cycle of poverty. The type of shelter Naumann is dreaming of would give kids a place to play, to be kids.

“We have families sleeping in their cars in the Walmart parking lot,” Naumann said. “We have families living in storage units. One family has six kids and they are sleeping in a storage unit in 110-degree heat. That’s real life. Their life. That’s what’s broken our hearts on this issue.” 

Naumann is crunching numbers and talking to potential landowners and donors about putting this new model into action, along with developing a sustainability plan for continued future funding. 

“We see about 18 families a month who are either homeless or could very easily be,” he said. “With these numbers, particularly escalating 30 to 40 percent every year, we’ve got to do something dramatically different to get in front of it or we will be Austin, with people standing on the street corners with signs.” 

To assist the Highland Lakes Crisis Network with its mission, visit its online donation or volunteer pages. If you are in need of help, send the HLCN a message online.