February 10, 2017

Post by Jason Phillips, VISTA Program Manager


I’m fortunate to serve as the VISTA Program Manager with the Texas Homeless Network (THN). Our AmeriCorps VISTA projects work towards alleviating the consequences of poverty and ending homelessness across the state. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to El Paso, TX to meet with our partners and provide some training. Being based in Austin, most of my job is over the phone and via the internet, so I am always thrilled when I get the chance to see in-person how communities throughout Texas are addressing the complex issues surrounding homelessness. For this trip I had three main goals: (1) to meet and train our new VISTA members and supervisors, (2) get a glimpse of the strengths and challenges of the community in addressing homelessness, and (3) to eat as much delicious food as I could.



That, I did. I was told in Austin, on the plane, and upon arrival that the enchiladas at L&J Cafe were a must. They were right. On a three day trip, I went there twice…



I had the chance to explore the area, from the giant houses on top of the mountain to the alleys behind a homeless shelter. What seems to unite all the folks I met on this journey, regardless of what part of town or where they lay their head at night, is their deep love and appreciation for their bordertown community.

Here I am overlooking El Paso, partly up the mountain (which is rare for me as we can only find hills here in central Texas):



I also got a little taste of home, when I saw this:





Anyway, the reason I really went - to work! I spent the majority of my time with our new THN VISTA members and site supervisors at the Opportunity Center for the Homeless. The Opportunity Center, or the OC, has multiple shelter spaces, services, and housing programs for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. As put by one of their staff, they serve the population that no one else wants to or can. Their services are low-barrier, which means that they open their doors to anyone experiencing homelessness, regardless of mental health issues, substance use, criminal history, or other barriers that often exclude folks from services. Another unique aspect of the OC is that most of their staff and volunteers have lived-experience with homelessness. This peer model informs their approach to service delivery, and, in my opinion, is often missing or undervalued in homeless services. Our VISTA members at the OC will be working on community engagement, volunteer program development, coordinating and developing an interdisciplinary model of service delivery, and assisting with the development and implementation of a new housing program.


Here are two of our VISTA members, Cassie and Austen, and one of their supervisors, Courtney:



I also had the opportunity to meet with one of our upcoming site supervisors at the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition brings together organizations and stakeholders to collaborate, pursue funding, and plan and coordinate efforts to address the issue of homelessness at the community-wide level. The coalition also serves as the lead for the Continuum of Care (CoC) for the county of El Paso. We are pleased that they will be hosting a VISTA project starting in March 2017. The project will assist with implementing SOAR (SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery), which is a process that streamlines access to income and benefits for eligible individuals experiencing homelessness.


They are a small team, but here are some very impactful and hard working women:



I ended the trip by meeting with a potential partner of our program, that is doing great work with youth in the El Paso area. The meeting started with a tour and ended with an almost two-hour conversation about the many opportunities to strengthen their agency’s services, and at the end of the day, best serve the people in their community. The biggest takeaways from the conversation for me was her emphasis on creating a noninstitutionalized environment, developing the programs-based trauma-informed care, and feedback from the youth that are going through the programs. These types of conversations are an integral part of developing our new projects and are just downright exciting. Hopefully, a future blog of mine will be announcing our new partnership!


I have had a hard time trying to come up with an overall summary of the trip, aside from the exciting new VISTA projects and the positive impact they will have in their community. So, I will leave you with this, some remarks that I wrote down while waiting for my flight home:


I've spent the last few days in El Paso, TX - a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. I had the opportunity to train some new folks and meet with people that serve some of the most vulnerable people here. I am reminded of and inspired by how resilient people and communities can be.

For every oppressive action by people in power, there are folks fighting for the needs, rights, and dignity of other human beings. Something I need to remind myself from time to time...


Interested in learning more about the THN AmeriCorps VISTA Program? Wanting to serve as a VISTA member or host a VISTA project in your community?


Please contact me!


Jason Phillips, LMSW


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