This is EJ. He is the support services coordinator at Arbor Terrace, an affordable housing apartment complex in south Austin. EJ is from the suburbs of Boston and has a master’s degree in social work from UT. He’s been here for 13 years and in this job for two.
Arbor Terrace is part of Foundation Communities, which creates housing that helps people succeed. About 50% of Arbor Terrace’s 120 residents come there out of chronic homelessness. Part of EJ’s job is to help them get stabilized—getting access to medical care, enrolling in MAP or Medicaid, connecting to mental health services, searching for a job—and thus increase their chances of being able to maintain housing.
“To transition from living on the streets for years, trusting no one, to getting used to your four walls and being part of a community: that's a hard transition,” says EJ. “I watch people start to feel human again--someone who has felt alone for so long slowly become a community member. That sounds melodramatic, but the way our society treats the homeless is incredibly dehumanizing.”
One of EJ’s favorite moments from his job was when the residents wanted to put on a Juneteenth barbecue. EJ purchased a bunch of meat and ingredients for sides. The staff stepped aside and let the residents plan it. “Much more than I expected, folks came out of the woodwork. Juneteenth is traditionally an African-American holiday, but we had black, white and Hispanic residents coming out with bowls of potato salad and cole slaw and beans and rice. It was amazing. The residents grilled all day. They did it themselves, and I think everyone enjoyed it so much more because of that. It was such a great experience to see people just enjoying themselves, clapping each other on the back. Getting along. Saving plates of food for the folks that were at work.”
Here’s what EJ has learned in his job:
“I've learned that most people experiencing or coming out of homelessness are just that. People.
I've learned that it’s really, really hard to get adequate care for mental illness in Austin if you don't have good insurance and a stable support network built up around you.
I've learned that a lot of the people addicted to hard scary drugs are people, too.
I've learned that people with ruined lives are still people, too.
I've learned that a sober person, who grapples with addiction, is still the same person they were before they got high. The hopes and dreams and political views and favorite TV shows and music. That all remains.”
The day I was there to drop off a Keep Austin Fed donation, EJ invited me to meet some of the residents in the community kitchen. They jumped right in to unload the food and thanked me for the support. They shook my hand—and from that I learned more than they know.