A DIY Approach to Helping the Unhoused Pays Off at Camp Esperanza
No funding? No resources? No problem.
It was the last of May's thunderstorms, and the rain pounded down on Camp Esperanza, a campsite for the unhoused at the southeast edge of town. The rain whipped the tarps raised by residents to create shade, the pallets upended to use as privacy fencing around their tents, and the lawn chairs, bicycles, and shopping carts strewn about. Most of all, the rain soaked the tents themselves; they were sodden, drooping. Inside them, about 150 people waited out the storm.
At the camp's community center, a manufactured home on the western side of the state-owned property, Max Moscoe was describing how the downpour could affect the people in the tents. "Something that might happen today, probably will happen: There's probably somebody who just got a birth certificate through case management, which is then going to be the catalyst that's going to lead them to getting a driver's license, opening a bank account, and all these other things that are incremental steps that lead you towards employment and housing. But that person is probably in a tent right now. Their tent may get flooded. And that birth certificate that they worked really hard to get is going to wash away or rip."
The description was not a lament – just an explanation of how things are. And in fact, there's something irrepressibly cheerful about Moscoe. He's a gregarious, open-hearted presence – an effective spokesperson for The Other Ones Foundation, the improvisational, DIY nonprofit that has been working alongside the residents of Esperanza for the past year. The organization has 30 staffers providing employment, humanitarian aid, and case management services.
Like many of his co-workers, Moscoe is a musician – he sings and plays piano – and has had brushes with being unhoused. "A lot of us who started [TOOF] have lived experience, and I was on-and-off homeless from 18 to about 25," he said. "But I'm a physically – and now, mentally – healthy white dude from an affluent family. So my experience was very different than a lot of the people that we work with, because I have a strong support network and I was able to use that tool. I got off easy. So it's almost like – I don't want to say an obligation – but it's just like I want to be there, and be that support network, for people who didn't get dealt the cards that I was dealt."
As Moscoe spoke, rain and thunder sounded over the whoosh of the central AC. His thoughts returned to the people riding out the storm and to TOOF's latest project, a plan to replace the camp's tents with sturdy structures capable of handling the weather.
"People out here are incredibly resilient, and very clever, and most people have raised their stuff up on pallets and done what they can do to outfit themselves in a way where they're going to weather this storm," Moscoe said, leaning back in his chair and keeping his eyes level. "But it's never going to be enough until we have people in some structures.
"And it's not like that solves everything, right? Everybody's still bringing to the table the things, the issues, that got them here in the first place. But let's get them inside, and that way, from there, everything is easier. Then their birth certificate doesn't float down into the gutter."
Taking the Leap
The structures Moscoe talks about are on the way. They will be about the size of a backyard storage shed, but with electricity and climate control. Chris Baker, TOOF's executive director, can't say who is providing the structures – that person does not want to be named. But whoever it is, they will be buying 200 of them for Camp Esperanza.
Baker is in his mid-30s, a somewhat frumpy presence but, people say, getting more polished by the week. After texting with TOOF's benefactor to make certain that, no, he shouldn't reveal their name, Baker described the structures: "I will say that they will be made off-site and then be delivered to the camp. And they don't require any stick lumber. They're floating. They can be set up wherever. And they're very well insulated. They have power and a door, just like on your house. And they are awesome."
Baker, too, is immediately likeable. He's a musician – he sings and plays guitar – and as a teenager followed the various incarnations of the Grateful Dead in the band's last years, after the death of Jerry Garcia. Baker had issues with substance use during that period and spent many nights sleeping on the streets. Then he returned home, got a college degree, and moved to Austin in 2009.
"The very first job that I was able to get was at a homeless shelter," Baker said. "And I immediately sort of fell in love with the people. I think I've had a unique ability to kind of break down the barrier between the provider and the client – and, you know, I don't even really like those words. But I've always felt very, very at home around people who were living this experience."
After the shelter, Baker worked music festivals. But he continued volunteering for the unhoused, hearing from them that they needed low-barrier employment – a way to make money without having to show an ID. So in late 2017 he tore out his recording studio, threw in a pair of desks, and created The Other Ones Foundation, naming it after a Grateful Dead song.
TOOF's inaugural project was Workforce First, a partnership with the city that paid unhoused people to clean abandoned homeless encampments and city parks. Baker picked up the workers, drove them to the sites, and paid them $15 an hour – cash – for their labor. The next year, TOOF created its second project, a mobile hygiene clinic. It outfitted a trailer with shower facilities and began towing it to the city's larger camps, offering showers, toiletries, and sack lunches.
Then, in October 2019, the Austin City Council voted to make public camping legal, allowing the city's 3,000-5,000 unhoused people to set up tents below highway overpasses, along city streets, and in parks. In retaliation, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Dept. of Public Safety to conduct "sweeps" – to evict the unhoused from their camps and throw away whatever belongings they couldn't carry with them.
In what he must have considered a conciliatory gesture, Abbott designated 7 acres of industrial blacktop near the intersection of U.S. 183 and Texas 71, just north of the airport, as a state-sanctioned camp. The property had been a storage yard for the Texas Department of Transportation. The people removed by Abbott's sweeps would be allowed to stay in the crude metal buildings formerly occupied by vehicles and road equipment. Or they could pitch tents on the level, treeless parking lot, with no running water, sewer, or electricity, far from any source of food.
The idea of placing the unhoused in this environment was, and is, controversial. But for TOOF, it offered an opportunity. They needed a base of operations and reasoned that if the unhoused were all in one location, it would be easier to provide services for them. In August of 2020, TOOF negotiated a handshake deal with the state of Texas. The foundation would be given a year to show progress at the camp – which was soon named Camp Esperanza.
"We had no funding, we had no nothing," Baker said. "But we made a promise to the people that were here. We came out and did a needs assessment – we interviewed, I think, 150 of the residents at the time about what they need, what they want, how we could do the best work. And we just took a fucking leap."
How Free Lunch Happens
Jazz Mills recalls the first time she and Carrie Fussell Bickley saw Camp Esperanza: "Like, I thought we were in the wrong place. There was no system, no organization, just piles of trash. It really looked like a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max type of environment. And then once we pulled up, we started realizing these people were just coming out of nowhere and I was like, 'Oh my God, there really are people here.' And we found a random picnic table and set out the food."
Mills and Fussell Bickley came to the camp just after TOOF's handshake deal. Both are musicians. Mills sings in the band Pope Coke; Fussell Bickley is the leader of Calliope Musicals. Like the leaders of TOOF, they formerly worked event production. Then COVID hit. "I just had all this time on my hands and I started making food and passing it out," Mills said. "And my friend Carrie was also making food and passing it out. Just ended up [that] we were doing it independently of each other and I think I was like, well, if we're both doing it we might as well do it together and try to create some sort of system."
Mills and Fussell Bickley named themselves Free Lunch and began visiting the camp once a week. That became twice a week, then four times a week, and by the time of February's winter storm Free Lunch was delivering meals to Esperanza every day. During the coldest days they went tent to tent. They brought the kind of meals that the unhoused population doesn't often get: freshly prepared, with lots of vegetables and fruit. The meals are designed to accommodate the conditions – diabetes, dental problems, stomach issues – that the unhoused population suffers from in disproportionate numbers.
As they brought more and more meals, Free Lunch grew to a staff of five who have become part of the fabric of the camp. "I think that one of the reasons why that community has grown to trust us is because they know that we care about them, and that we listen to them," Mills said. "And they'll be like, 'All we want is cold fruit in the summer.' When we realized that last summer, we were cutting up three to four dozen watermelons a week, just watermelon alone, and bringing it to the camp, shoving it into bags and throwing it in our Yetis."
Free Lunch is making these connections, serving this superior food, and doing it all with their own funding (see "How to Fund Free Lunch?" below), but Mills says there is nothing particularly amazing about the group. "We're not more capable than anybody else, we're not extra special people. We didn't change anything about who we were to do this. We just started it. And now five people who have no previous experience doing any of this are serving dinner, seven days a week, at the camp.
"And I feel like that's something I really always want people to understand. You don't have to go on a microgreens diet, and start doing yoga, and meditate, and become your best self to really make impactful change in your community. You can just, like, start."
A Camp Becomes a Community
Mike Nieves was one of those sitting in his tent and waiting out the thunderstorms in May. In February, he rolled into a sleeping bag and a sheet of plastic to survive the extreme cold. Now he's dealing with the heat. "It is a test," Nieves said. "It's testing your willpower to, with the grace of God, be able to withstand all four seasons – winter, summer, fall, spring."
This is Nieves' second summer at Esperanza. He's from Florida, where it gets hot, but not Texas-hot. And Esperanza, because of the blacktop, gets even hotter. To handle the heat, Nieves alters his sleep schedule. "I stay sleeping until about eight or nine and then I get out of there, because temperatures are already up in the 80s," he said. "So I get out and walk around, go to the restroom, come up here [to the community center], and keep hydrated. Then I take a nap between two and four, if I can – I sleep on my porch outside."
The employees of TOOF and those living in the camp are quite matter-of-fact about the threat from extreme weather – that it kills unhoused people. A camp resident died of hypothermia during February's ice storm. Two others died last summer. Still, Nieves prefers the camp to the highway underpasses, where he says a homeless person's life can change in an instant. Even with its exposure and chaotic appearance, Esperanza is a community.
Nieves is deeply involved in that community as one of the five members of the Leadership Committee elected by camp residents to work alongside TOOF. "We talk about the issues, what those people out there want to have, at the community meetings," Nieves said. "'What's wrong with the place? How can we fix it?'"
The committee meets weekly and helps TOOF set priorities. In his position, Nieves has gotten to know all of TOOF's main players. One of their great qualities, he said, is that they ask questions and listen. When camp residents requested an ice machine to help with the heat – something the organization had not thought of – TOOF made it happen. Since last summer, they have brought computers, mail service, showers, and laundry facilities to the camp. Physical and mental health providers now visit the camp weekly. Nieves and the leadership committee are talking with TOOF about the possibility of creating a dog park.
TOOF has also brought case management services to Esperanza. Four months ago, Nieves began meeting with a case manager and now he's got a social security card and is receiving medication. "Everybody was doubting them at first, felt like they weren't going to do anything," he said of TOOF. "But obviously, they are trying."
Iris Martinez leads a team of six case managers at TOOF. She's worked for the unhoused for 20 years and says that TOOF brings a different approach to case management. For example, they don't ask the unhoused to follow any particular set of steps. "Obviously, we have individuals that want to have housing," Martinez said. "But other individuals are not interested in getting help, just, for many reasons. So one of the things that we do that's different from any other organization is that we don't come up with a plan – the client will tell us what they need and then, based on those needs, we will create a plan together."
Getting people housed is still TOOF's goal, but there are many things that have to happen first. Its case managers help their clients navigate government bureaucracy and private aid groups to get clothing, necessary documents, physical health care, mental health care, food stamps, and work opportunities. Once those needs are met, a case manager may begin, if the client wishes, to look for housing placements.
At other organizations providing homelessness services, case managers may handle 40 or 50 or 60 clients; TOOF's managers handle 15 clients each. Chris Baker calls these "boutique" caseloads, and they give TOOF's workers the time to walk clients through stressful situations. "I can say, as a case manager, 'Go to this appointment at this particular agency and they will be able to help you' – but we don't do that," Martinez said. "We're not only here to make a referral. We walk through that process with them and that really makes a difference."
In the last year, TOOF's approach has helped 105 people get into stable housing, and those numbers have been accelerating in recent months. Martinez is excited by what's happening but says that, more than anything, TOOF's mission is just to treat people with dignity.
"We have clients that have just come into camp and they don't have anything," she said. "So the minute that we can, we start working with those individuals, providing hygiene items, and just the regular things that we take for granted every single day. It really gives them the sense of, OK, I have dignity and I have somebody that's there for me.' And that's our core. That's the main reason why we do the work that we do."
At first, it was a conversational sort of speech. Chris Baker began his remarks at TOOF's June 24 fundraiser at the Mohawk by marveling that he was dressed in a suit coat – a rather standard opening. He then announced that TOOF had signed a 10-year lease for Esperanza and ticked off its accomplishments – the community center, the computers, the mail service, the showers, the laundry, the low-barrier employment, Free Lunch, case management.
As Baker shifted gears and began to lay out TOOF's plans, his speech began to feel more like oratory: "So how do we improve upon this, how do we make it better? Are we going to continue to let people live in tents and ramshackle structures that they've built? Are we going to continue to let people suffer through heat and cold and rain and ice? No! We're done with that shit. We are building a transformational shelter complex!"
The complex that Baker described – which TOOF says will cost $5.4 million – was rendered in sleek detail in brochures distributed at the door of the club and on blow-ups lining the sides of the stage. The plans show four neighborhoods of 50 shelters, each clustered near showers and restrooms. Permanent laundry facilities and a kitchen for Free Lunch are to the west of the living areas, near the current community center. TOOF also brought one of the 200 shelters to the Mohawk, which sat outside, in the space usually occupied by tour buses.
By the time the speeches began, about a hundred Austinites were milling around the club, gabbing compulsively in the heat of early evening. There were community activists, council members, musicians, and a few who seemed especially prosperous and perhaps philanthropic. Free Lunch served food in a corner across from the stage, the same food they serve at Esperanza – in this case a fruit salad of watermelon, strawberries, and grapes, followed by tamales with rice and corn and Frito pie.
It turns out that Baker is a fine public speaker. As he neared the climax of his remarks, he riffed on the meaning of "home." "I subscribe to the idea that home is a concept," he said in rapid bursts of words. "It's a nebulous thing. It's not a place or a building necessarily, but having 'homefulness' – a house really helps with that. And so housing – shelter, housing – these are things that can offer us a solution to houselessness. But community, fellowship, love – these are the things that are going to cure our society of homelessness."
The room had gone silent. Baker's oratory took on the cadence of the great stump speakers of past generations. "And when you get down underneath all of the nonsense, and all the bullshit, and all of the media, and the politics, and the political action committees, and the camping bans, and the bickering online – when you get underneath all of that, what you find are human people. Human people who have feelings about others that they care about, and who have people that care about them."
Afterward, Tameca Jones played. Those in the audience, so many of them musicians themselves, exercised the prerogative available to those who live among such cultural abundance. They paid little attention to the music and continued their conversations.
“Failure Is an Option”
"Chris is magnetic, the work is important, and I think the combination of those two pieces means that folks like myself are raising their hands," Matt Glazer said.
Glazer is one of a generation of Austinites who've made their careers, and their fortunes, working in and around tech and who are now in a position to change things in our city. He works with the consulting firm Blue Sky Partners, helping nonprofits and start-ups, and formerly led the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce. He also has a long track record working on state and local political campaigns, such as digital outreach for former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego.
Glazer sits on TOOF's board of directors, along with eight other experts in law, finance, site design, and city and state affairs. He said working with TOOF is a blast. "The way I describe it is, it's kind of like a punk-rock mentality. We're loose. Like, we're focused on the work but we curse at board meetings and we're really candid. If a call comes in and Chris has to jump off, the work gets done first, right? It doesn't feel like it's buttoned up or you know, Robert's Rules of Order."
While bringing in experts like Glazer, TOOF is identifying philanthropists who can fund its vision. One group already on board is Glimmer Austin, a nonprofit fighting poverty in Austin. Philip and Donna Berber started Glimmer Austin in 2003, after selling their online brokerage firm to Charles Schwab for half a billion dollars. The Berbers also run the sister organization A Glimmer of Hope, which fights poverty and hunger in Ethiopia. They've followed TOOF since its Workforce First days and recently donated 50 IKEA-made shelters to the camp.
Philip Berber sees three types of organizations working for the unhoused in Austin. One is the public sector – the city and county, health care agencies like CommUnityCare and Integral Care, the housing authorities and workforce agencies, and so on. Another includes big nonprofits like the United Way and the Salvation Army that have been around for decades. "And then you get the innovators," Berber said. "Then you get the change-makers. Then you get those that turn it all upside down and back to front and put themselves in the field, alongside the homeless, and they work with them, and they talk with them, and they listen to them – that's The Other Ones Foundation. They're not sitting in an ivory tower on Whatever Street. They're not sitting out of sight. They are literally living, breathing, working with the homeless, for the homeless, day in and day out."
To people like Glazer and Berber – the well-connected and the wealthy – the sense that TOOF is making it up as it goes along actually has a lot of appeal. "I love the fact that The Other Ones Foundation is like, 'We're going to address issues head-on,'" Glazer said. "The Other Ones Foundation set up Camp Esperanza, right? And they provided services, and they – during COVID – set up a mobile shower, right? None of those were things that we talked about when I first met Chris and Max."
Baker has a name for this philosophy; he calls it "failure is an option."
"We are looked upon as an organization that's worthy of people's support because we are willing to take risks," Baker said. "I mean, we have to approach everything with the idea that failure is an option and not everything works. You can't go into everything that you do thinking [you] have to get this perfect because that, I think, is what really slows things down."
What Causes Homelessness
One thing that Baker and Moscoe speak of constantly is what, exactly, causes homelessness. They know what it is.
Baker said: "When I go and talk at conventions or in front of groups, and we have to go back to the very basics about what homelessness is, I challenge the room to this question: 'What are the causes of homelessness?' I say, 'Shout it out!'
"And people are so predictable. You always hear the same three things: drug addiction or alcoholism, mental illness, and loss of a job. And my challenge then is to say, 'All right, think of someone you know personally who lives with a substance use disorder, or somebody who lives with a mental illness, or somebody who's lost a job – think of that person. And once you've got them in your head, raise your hand.' And of course, every person in the room raises their hand. I say, 'Now keep your hand in the air if that's a homeless person.' And of course, 99% of the room, their hands go down. So there is no cause and effect here. I think we just proved that."
So what is the cause of homelessness? "It really is ... the loss of a support network. Now, all of those things can contribute to the loss of the support network. But you know, I lived with mental illness and drug addiction and I never became chronically homeless – because I had a support network and a social safety net."
Understanding that homelessness follows from the loss of social support has guided TOOF in its work. The foundation has designed Esperanza to have common areas balanced with individual structures that offer privacy, because that fosters community. It has prioritized case management but kept case loads low, so managers can make real connections with clients. It has brought residents together around the fresh, nutritious meals prepared by Free Lunch. In making these choices, TOOF is consciously creating a community for people who haven't had one.
It seems to be working. "There's already proof of concept," Moscoe said. "We've housed upward of 30 people off of this site in the past several months. We're watching it happen, where they're in a tent, they move into one of these shelters, they work with a case manager. And then they're off and into stable housing. It's happening on a weekly basis – and it's not even built yet, you know? But like, as we continue to build, and get more people into shelters, and hire more case managers to do this work, there's going to be movement through this site. And that's exciting to see happen now and it's exciting to know that it's going to grow."
Many worry that Austin is becoming like San Francisco, where owning a home is impossible for any but the most affluent, while thousands live on Downtown streets with no consensus on how to help them. So TOOF's successes are attracting attention across the social spectrum. "That ranges from faith-based groups to business leaders, private citizens, city, state government," Moscoe says. "You know, this is everyone's issue to deal with. Everybody needs to be at the table right now."
As TOOF's ambitions expand, the search for money consumes more of Baker's time. "There's nobody writing the really big check," he said. "That is not happening. So we have to constantly hustle to make it happen. And it sucks because it's so much of my job now. Not always necessarily making the phone calls, but always balancing – what does it cost? How are we going to get the money?"
In the meantime, Baker has promised himself he'll stay grounded and not let that work create distance between him and the people who brought him to it in the first place. "So do you know who Steve Parish is?" Baker asked. "He's probably the most famous roadie of all time. Big Steve they called him, he was Jerry Garcia's guitar guy, worked on the Grateful Dead road crew. And he wrote this book about his experience, but he elevated from being a guitar guy to being a manager, road manager, and then manager-manager. And he said that no matter how high up in the organization he got, he always wanted to run cable because he wanted to keep his hands on the gear.
"And so I've always kept that in the back of my mind – I've got to keep my hands on the gear. And so I will, every day, go out and make sure that I'm walking around and talking to people and just make myself available. Just go for a walk. Like, this next hour, I'm just going to walk around. And you'd be amazed how much that helps, just going out, walking around, and saying, 'Hey, I'm here, I'm available. Anybody wanna talk to me?'"
And with that, Baker went out onto the deck of the community center and smoked a cigarette. Then he descended the steps and began his rounds.
How to Fund Free Lunch? By Getting Creative.
Jazz Mills knew the success of Free Lunch would hinge on funding. She and her partners needed a stable source of money but didn't want to rely on big donors or get bogged down in constant fundraising.
She remembers how they solved the problem: "One day, we had this big powwow on my front porch and within a couple hours realized, like, why don't we just publish a magazine? All of us have always wanted to run a magazine for creatives."
With their many contacts in the music world, Free Lunch quickly signed up a hundred "Lunch Monitors" who paid $10 a month to receive quarterly issues of the magazine. A year later, the group has over a thousand Lunch Monitors, most of them young people who would never contribute to the United Way or the Salvation Army. "They get it every three months," Mills said, "and they go, 'Wow, these girls are doing it! I love this scene, it's so adorable!'"
Knowing the money is there, and will be there next month, has allowed Free Lunch to relax and concentrate on the food. It's also got them thinking about expansion – using the new kitchen that TOOF has constructed for them at Esperanza to remake themselves as a meal provider not just for the camp but for other groups across the city.
If that happens, all it really means, Mills says, is that they'll cook more food. "When people ask me, 'What does expansion look like for Free Lunch?' I'm like, well, when we get more money, we'll make more food – and that's it. There's no reason for us to change course at all until people don't have to worry about food."