On a hot September afternoon, 57-year-old Bebe Reyna walks down a treeless street at the Esperanza Community, a seven-acre site near Austin’s airport that provides temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness. She passes her climate-controlled cabin, a 96-square-foot prefabricated structure painted a warm beige. It’s crowded with Reyna; her dog, Bay Maxx; and her indoor cat, Kasper, but there’s room for a bed, a cooler, and Reyna’s bike. Sometimes, when Reyna finishes her shift cleaning the Esperanza administration building, she locks the door and takes a nap, blissfully undisturbed.
In the community center, she checks her mail and greets neighbors waiting to get paid for today’s work—cleaning, distributing food, hauling supplies. Posters on the walls advertise a walking group and meditation meetup called Quieting the Mind. Near the front door, a photo identifies Reyna as part of the residents’ elected leadership committee.
This sense of order and cohesion was unimaginable when Reyna first came here two years ago. The scene then, she says, was “severe chaos.” The site opened in November 2019 as a state-sanctioned encampment, the one place where unsheltered Austinites were encouraged to pitch their tents. By early summer, close to two hundred had set up camp on the blacktop in old truck bays. Residents jostled for a single electrical outlet and a shower they constructed from a cold-water hose surrounded by upturned pallets. Dogs ran loose among the tents and portable toilets, dodging cooking fires.
But in summer 2021 the Other Ones Foundation, led by Austinite Chris Baker, officially took over the site. The nonprofit, then four years old, had not run a shelter before. Its focus was connecting clients with “low-barrier work”: jobs they could do without an ID card, bank account, credentials, or transportation. TOOF laid down some laws—such as requiring dogs to be leashed—but mainly it asked residents what they needed. Now, working with its landlord, the Texas Department of Transportation, TOOF is building an emergency-shelter complex that’s the first of its kind in the state: two hundred stand-alone cabins, restrooms with private showers, health care services, and even a vocational training center. The group has helped roughly 120 camp residents find stable housing and has cultivated a sense of trust among those who remain.
“This is my community,” Reyna says. “If it wasn’t for Chris Baker, I don’t know where I would be.”
Baker, who is 38, grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley. He dropped out of ninth grade and spent his young adulthood hitchhiking, hopping trains, and following the Grateful Dead spinoff band the Dead—as well as drinking, doing drugs, and overeating. He eventually graduated from college and started working at an Albany homeless shelter, where he immediately connected with the clients. “They were my people,” he says. “I felt very at home with them.”
In summer 2008, he and his now-wife embarked on a cross-country trip that ended outside Austin when their van burned. They stayed in town, married, and had two children, and Baker continued working in homeless services. In recent years drug treatment and bariatric surgery helped stabilize his relationship with substances and food, a journey partly documented in a 2021 episode of the life-makeover show Queer Eye. Now 230 pounds lighter, Baker has replaced drinking and getting high with therapy, exercise, and performing at poetry slams.
On one day in January 2019 the biannual headcount of people experiencing homelessness in Austin identified 2,255 residents without stable housing. Like other cities, Austin had nowhere near enough shelter beds or affordable apartments, and it faced pushback from neighbors whenever it tried to build more. That June, the city council passed a measure loosening restrictions on sitting, lying down, camping, and panhandling. A 2017 report by the city auditor had found—perhaps unsurprisingly—that a sizable majority of people ticketed for those violations did not pay the associated fines or show up in court. This often triggered an arrest warrant that would appear on a background check and make it even harder for the applicant to get housing.
With the policies relaxed, unsheltered Austinites moved their tents out of the woods to places where they felt safer and that were closer to bus stops and caseworkers. Encampments suddenly sprouted on medians and sidewalks, generating trash and uncomfortable encounters between passersby and some residents who appeared to be mentally unstable or high.
A backlash erupted against the changes. The critics included Governor Greg Abbott, who via Twitter criticized Austin’s “policy of lawlessness,” which he said jeopardized health and safety. Although the city council reinstated some rules in October 2019 about where people could sleep, Abbott nudged the Texas Department of Transportation to expand cleanup operations under state highways, even though residents of encampments there had pretty much nowhere else to go.
He also directed the agency to find land to designate for camping. Mike Arellano, the deputy engineer for TxDOT’s Austin district, suggested to the department an old TxDOT service yard, and on November 7 Abbott announced it as the designated area for Austin’s homeless to camp. The Texas Department of Emergency Management provided water and ready-to-eat meals, and DPS troopers were stationed on-site. But with inadequate facilities and no long-term vision, the camp quickly became a “postapocalyptic Burning Man,” Baker says. Arellano had started looking for an organization that could provide services for the homeless. TOOF became the obvious partner, he said, because it offered “a really good combination of compassion and passion and professionalism.” In August 2020, Baker accepted the role, and he later moved TOOF’s headquarters to the encampment.
The following June, TOOF signed a ten-year, $1-per-month lease with TxDOT, and the state agencies soon left. During TOOF’s initial surveys, encampment residents had rejected the idea of a congregate shelter, a big room with rows of cots. Baker’s team knew that since the pandemic, noncongregate shelter had been emerging nationally as a best practice. TOOF had drafted plans, approved by TxDOT, to make such a shelter reality. In September 2021, TxDOT and private companies began utilities work, and by the end of the next year, cabins had replaced the tents. Restrooms with real showers later supplanted the hose.
The cabins are emergency shelter, a temporary stop on the road to a stable home. Technically they serve the same purpose as the Marshalling Yard, a cot-filled warehouse run by the City of Austin a stone’s throw from Esperanza. But Esperanza’s noncongregate structure helps residents transition to life inside four walls—even though, Baker says, he doesn’t want them to think of their cabin as their house. “This has been a really wacky tightrope walk,” he says. “You want people to have a dignified existence. . . . But at the same time, you want to make sure they have some motivation to move out.”
TOOF alumni who have left for permanent housing come back to visit, and some still work at Esperanza. Reyna expects she’ll wait at least six months before it’s her turn. But when she leaves, it won’t be for good. She wants to give back, whether that means volunteering or joining the staff. “I want to be part of the community,” she says. “I’m TOOF too.” For more information about the Other Ones Foundation, or to donate, click here.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Providing Shelter, Job Training, and Community for Those in Need.” Subscribe today.