Shelter From the Storm
Residents Find Sanctuary at Job's House
By Bryan Mealer, Fri., Aug. 21, 1998
For the past seven years, Terrell has run Sanctuary, a system of three transitional living facilities in Austin that takes in people down on their luck and helps them get back on their feet. Located on far East 12th Street, just east of Pleasant Valley, is Job's House, one of Terrell's largest facilities, housing 25 men, women, and children. Terrell took the name from the biblical character Job, who fought inequities and adversities throughout his life, and whose deliverance from torment was doubted by his friends. But Job was steadfast, says Terrell, and eventually broke through the muck his life had become.
"Job went through many difficulties and overcame them," says Terrell. "It wasn't his fault, as is the case with the people here. These people are struggling through difficult periods in their lives, but eventually find their way back. I remind them that they have to hang in there and stay focused."
Terrell, 53, is by all means, the boss. A devoutly religious, no-nonsense woman, she describes herself as a "fierce advocate for the homeless." Those who live at Sanctuary pay her the utmost respect. They say they would have either quit or dropped dead years ago, given the adversities she's faced just trying to run her shelters.
All Walks of Life
The people who live at Job's House have ended up there for many reasons. Some are still recovering from drug addiction and alcoholism, some are single parents who couldn't afford to pay their utility bills, and others are there after the bottom simply dropped out from under them. Most are referred to Terrell by various nonprofit organizations such as United Way's First Call for Help program and the Salvation Army, or by hospitals, jails, and treatment centers. But unlike the Salvation Army or other "homeless shelters," Sanctuary operates more as a halfway house, though it's legally classified as a shelter. Those who stay there are required to pay a fee of $100 a week, if they can, to help Terrell pay bills and maintain the property. Terrell doesn't think the fee keeps people away who really want to be there. She believes if people can afford to live at Job's House, once they've recovered they can afford a place of their own. In the meantime, everything is provided for them -- room and board, laundry, and in-house AA meetings, which focus on spiritual, as well as mental, recovery.
In the seven years Terrell has operated Sanctuary, over 200 men and women have made the transition to independent living. Few have returned. As Terrell puts it, "We make it easy. We take away all the worries." But that doesn't mean the residents while away their days reading magazines or playing checkers. Most are gainfully employed, or in the process of finding steady work. Staying focused, as Terrell says, and constantly striving for self-improvement has worked for people like McNeese, who has held a steady job at Robert Mueller Municipal Airport since he's lived at the shelter.
From the outside, Job's House bears a striking resemblance to an old bar -- which, in fact, it once was back in the day when it was called Chester's, a seedy juke joint known for the drunken brawls that took place behind its doors. Terrell even recalls hearing about people being shot and killed out in the parking lot. Today, one would have a hard time finding any of Chester's old demons lurking behind the furniture. For one, there are children everywhere, running here and there, and performing cartwheels to impress their visitors. A wooden podium stands in the corner -- to be used as a pulpit every Sunday and Wednesday, when Terrell rustles everyone from their rooms to participate -- if they wish -- in a down-home Pentecostal service. The doors to the three dormitory-style rooms spill open and the residents gather in the common area. Here, too, is where most of the household activity takes place, with people talking or shouting instructions to keep the kids in line.
A barbecue pit outside is used for smoking brisket and chicken for Sunday dinners. One recent Sunday morning, as Terrell and others were winding up the prayer service with testimony and song, a man wearing a red apron stood outside and tended the pit. Terrell explained later that the man, who lives nearby, appeared at the door one day and asked to be the shelter cook. When Terrell told him she couldn't afford to pay him anything, he replied, "That's okay, I just want to give something back."
Drawing on Strength
With more than 1,700 nonprofit organizations in and around Travis County that offer similar aid to the homeless and displaced, Terrell's mission is a very personal one. She was once homeless herself. Born in Oklahoma City, Terrell and her sisters were abandoned by their mother when she was nine years old. Raised by relatives until she was 16, Terrell left home to live on her own. At 28 and already a single mother of two, she enrolled at Drexel University in Philadelphia where she obtained a degree in accounting. After returning to Oklahoma, she opened her own tax firm and was making a steady living on $40,000 a year. Then one day, out of nowhere, Terrell says, she decided she had had enough. She was fed up with the eight-to-five treadmill, her children were grown and out of the house, and as she explains, "I had no one to take care of but myself. Sometimes that can be a cold, hard reality."
So Terrell dropped off the face of the earth. She began dabbling in drugs and pretty soon, that life had her in its claws. On and off for five years, Terrell was strung out on crack cocaine and living out of her truck on the streets. Still, Terrell says she was a "functioning drug addict" and able to somehow maintain a job to keep buying drugs. But reckoning came when her sister explained to her two sons that their mother was an addict. Depressed and suicidal, Terrell says, she turned to God for strength. "I didn't want my two boys to read in the paper that their mother had shot her brains out," she explains.
In the late Eighties, Terrell committed to changing her life. She packed up and moved to Texas. After living in Killeen, Terrell, now married, moved to Austin. Because of the steep Austin rent, she and her husband began sharing their home with others to make ends meet. Soon their house became a joint cooperative. In September 1991, Terrell acquired the first of many homes she would use as emergency shelters for the homeless and struggling. This was followed by buying another home, and then another. Soon Terrell had four homes and was receiving a steady flow of referrals from various agencies.
But then her good will hit a wall. In 1995, one of her homes burned down. And another, an old farmhouse on Manor Road, was so dilapidated that improvement costs, even upkeep, became unbearable. When fees from its residents couldn't pay the high electric bills, the city cut the home's power. It was a cold January, Terrell recalls, and despite countless pleas to the city for some leeway, the power remained off for three months. There were also complaints from a fast-food restaurant across the street that Terrell and her "transient" residents were pushing dope from the house. Terrell wrote letters and made phone calls to city officials, to no avail. Finally, the house was shut down.
Now with only Job's House, acquired in 1997, and two homes in Northeast Austin (Terrell asked to keep their locations confidential because the residents are predominantly women and children), Terrell still wrestles every day to keep them open and operational. But she's a fighter, a woman who counts every blessing as they come. And when situations have seemed most bleak, a gesture of good will arrives at her door step. Organizations such as the Capital Area Food Bank, the Department of Health and Human Services, and Habitat for Humanity are major donors. Once, when the city was threatening to cut the power at another home, Terrell called Applied Materials, whose officials immediately informed the city that they would foot the bill. Help has also come from Motorola, Frost Bank, and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) Employees' Charitable Trust, whose employees donate some of their monthly wages to help nonprofits such as Sanctuary.
Competing for Dollars
"There's more than 1,700 nonprofits out there doing the same thing and they're all competing for the same dollar," says Seffel. "If some of these places would consolidate, it would help everybody, including themselves."
Not helping matters any, says Terrell, is the city's system of handling the homeless and those who assist them. She points to the camping bans designed to keep the homeless out of downtown and the UT area as further examples of how cities like Austin pigeonhole homeless people into the "criminal element" category.
In fact, a study conducted for the city's recent "Homeless Self-Sufficiency/Public Safety Initiative," a project spearheaded by City Manager Jesus Garza, shows that public camping arrests comprise 11% of Class C misdemeanors in Austin. Homeless individuals were also involved in one-quarter of all Class C arrests. "The homeless need a way up and a way out," Terrell says. "Not more studies about studies on what to do with them."
In the meantime, Terrell says she's looking for a fourth building, and one day hopes to open a campus-like facility for the homeless, one that would provide emergency and permanent living for 500 people, child care, and assistance with legal expenses. Until then, Terrell will continue to put in her usual 14-hour days to make sure her residents are fed and cared for. And like Job, Terrell vows to remain steadfast in her mission to help people. "You can't say no to people who are hungry," she says. "But sometimes I have no idea where the money will come from. So I just pray."
And McNeese, the former "basket man," is grateful for Terrell's prayers. On a recent afternoon, the broad-shouldered man of 42 stood in the dimly lighted kitchen and leaned against a metal bread rack. Like hundreds of others, McNeese credits Terrell -- and Job's House -- for turning his life around. "You walk through the doors, and this place is so anointed," he says. "So blessed."
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.