By Raymond Thompson
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN — On a recent afternoon on a well-used basketball court in the Booker T. Washington Terrace public housing complex in East Austin, children scrambled to get their hands on the ball. When one boy grabbed it and refused to let go, the physical play escalated. That’s when Jon Koch stepped in.
“Hey, don’t be pushing, y’all. Come on, cut it out,” said Koch, a regular in these half-court pickup games, where he plays the roles of player, coach, referee and role model.
Every Thursday, along with the basketball, Koch and other members of Hope Street, a Christian nonprofit group, host a children’s prayer group at Booker T. Washington’s community center. Their goal is to support children in this economically depressed neighborhood by supplying basic necessities, both social and spiritual.
“A young man may not have a father in his life,” said Kim Patton, a Hope Street volunteer. “We’re just trying to give some guidance they may not be receiving from home,”
Hope Street is part of the national Baptist nonprofit, the Christian Women’s Job Corps. According to Chris Rowley, director of Hope Street, the CWJC began holding Bible studies in Booker T. Washington in 2000 to try to help the women of the community break out of the cycle of poverty.
Rowley says that, a decade later, Hope Street is having a positive effect on lives in the housing complex by providing GED tutoring, work readiness skills, a food and clothing pantry, and classes on building healthy relationships. Hope Street also offers Bible study and a youth ministry, where it instructs children on topics like conflict resolution.
There are lots of social programs available to the residents of Booker T. Washington, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America of the Austin area, the YMCA and a theater group. But according to Maryann Bedford, a resident, Hope Street is different because it provides a “second home” for members of the community that was absent before.
Bedford, who was mentored through Hope Street, recently found work as a dental assistant and plans to move out of public housing soon. She says few of the traditional organizations are working in such an intimate way with residents. For example, when children’s ministry is over each week, and everyone is fed, volunteers often walk kids safely home.
Hope Street has expanded its presence in the community. When it was formed in 2006, Booker T. Washington was the only neighborhood it served. Today, the program is active in five different locations across Austin, and its leadership is planning a program focusing on teen jobs and media studies.
At the start, the biggest challenge Hope Street volunteers faced was gaining the trust of the residents. “We have gone from not being able to touch the kids, to having them coming up into our laps,” Rowley said. Working at Booker T. Washington, she added, has taught the Hope Street team how to integrate themselves into poor multifamily environments. Other Christian organizations in Texas have adopted similar models based on Hope Street’s successes in Austin.
The problems Hope Street volunteers face at Booker T. Washington are typical of those existing at both the national and states levels. According to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of children living in poverty in the U.S. has increased over the last decade, from 9 to 11 percent. In Texas, nearly a quarter of all children live in poverty. In Austin, such children represent more than half the residents living in public housing, according to the City of Austin Housing Authority.
The National Center for Children in Poverty says that children living below the poverty line have greater chances of facing social, emotional and behavioral problems that can follow them into adulthood. “You hear them praying about grown-up problems,” said Marlin Thomas, a volunteer who leads the fourth- and fifth-grade boys group and helps them with social issues like anger management. “Some of them are straddling the fence. They want to do good, but they don’t want to be called a coward or weak,” Patton said. “[T]hey don’t want to get in a gang, but they’re not getting that love from home.”
That’s where Hope Street wants to step in. Jacque Knight, Hope Street’s outreach coordinator and a longtime resident of Booker T. Washington, sees the high number of single-parent homes and broken families as a major impediment to improving children’s lives.
“What we’re here to bring them is something that’s new to them,” he said. “Some of these kids, all they know is what they know at home, where they are being called everything but a child of God.”
According to the Justice Mapping Center, single parents run 29 percent of the households in the 78702 ZIP code, where Booker T. Washington is located making it the area with second-highest concentration of single-parent households in Austin.
Patton believes that while the problems created by childhood poverty are complex, a key solution lies in a basic concept — just being there for the kids. “They need someone to be in their life not just on Thursday nights, not just at after school programs,” she said. “They need someone to walk side by side with them.”