AUSTIN, Texas (October 30, 2020) — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaders at the City of Austin and community partners recognized a need that wasn’t being met: food for our neighbors experiencing homelessness.
Soup kitchens and other agencies were closing, and people weren’t giving as much money or other resources to people on the street in order to maintain social distancing. So the City and its partners stepped up to start the Eating Apart Together (EAT) Initiative, a program designed to deliver shelf-stable meals directly to encampments around Travis County. These community partners are Fiercely Focused on ending homelessness.
Michelle Myles, Acting Program Manager within the Homeless Services Division within Austin Public Health, explained crew members at the Palmer Events Center and the Austin Convention Center have worked for the last several months packing paper bags with shelf-stable food, water, hygiene items, masks, informational flyers, toilet paper, trash bags, and anything else that can fit in a “bag of love.”
Community partners then pack up the bags and deliver them directly to encampments around Travis County. In addition to providing much-needed resources, the bags allow people experiencing homelessness to shelter in place as much as possible.
“It’s reassuring,” said Mark, who lives under Interstate 35. “You know at least once a week you’re going to get a nice bag of groceries.”
The Eating Apart Together crew packs up 2,000 shelf-stable bags each week, along with about 4,000 prepared meals for service agencies to distribute at fixed sites. Since the initiative launched on April 9, 2020, partners have delivered more than 500,000 meals to people experiencing homelessness.
“Just the act of doing that creates a greater sense of trust and a greater sense of mutual humanity,” Myles said. “It’s not just, ‘I’m doing something for you,’ it’s that, ‘I care about you.'”
“Those bags have made some days out here for me and a lot of people,” Mark said. “If it wasn’t for those sometimes, there’d be some people here go hungry.”
The EAT Initiative has also exposed gaps in the food service system for people experiencing homelessness outside of the pandemic, Myles said.
“It’s definitely the first time the City of Austin has done anything like this,” she said. “From what we understand, there’s nothing quite like this in the United States.”
Myles is hopeful the broader homeless services system can re-examine food access after the pandemic ends to better support our neighbors living unsheltered in our community.
Watch the video above to see how the City of Austin and community partners are Fiercely Focused on ending homelessness.