It could be the pictures on the wall that perfectly reflect her personality. Or the full kitchen where she recently cooked up steak, asparagus and mashed potatoes for dinner.
But if 18-year-old Shaunna Contreras had to pinpoint her favorite thing about her new apartment, it would be the balcony, where she loves to sip her morning coffee while listening for the crickets and frogs that inhabit the creek below.
It's a tranquil and unexpected new phase for Contreras, who spent two years in foster care before aging out at 18 into a situation she called "hopeless." But thanks to a new program called Grace365 that funds apartments for aging out foster youth ages 18-22, Contreras now has support, and a safety net, as she transitions into adulthood. Grace365 also pays participants' bills, helps them get driver's licenses and offers twice-monthly stipends so they can purchase items such as groceries and clothing.
Contreras said walking into her own apartment for the first time was "unreal." "I just couldn't believe it," she said. "I was beyond grateful."
Stacy Johnson, right, with Shaunna Contreras on the porch of Contreras' apartment in Round Rock. (Kristin Finan/Austonia)
Grace365 is a new program by the nonprofit Central Texas Table of Grace. Unlike the new program, Central Texas Table of Grace only provides emergency shelter services to children and teens in the foster care system. Founder and CEO Stacy Johnson said the purpose of Grace365 is to offer stability to youth who are aging out while connecting them with all of the services available to them.
"Foster kids in Texas get free college, they get all kinds of different services that they can utilize, but nobody is really telling them how to do it and they're kind of falling through the cracks when they age out. A lot of them become homeless," Johnson said. "I'm just trying to prevent that from happening so that we can give them a place to transition."
At a young age Stacy Johnson entered the foster care system where she experienced the difficulties of transitioning out of the system. (Stacy Johnson)
Johnson, a Round Rock resident, knows all about the perils of aging out of the foster care system. She entered foster care at age 2 and emancipated at age 16 only to find herself struggling to make ends meet. She recalls days when the only thing she would eat was a $1 spicy chicken sandwich from Carl's Jr., purchased with any spare change she could manage to scrape together from under her couch cushions.
"I didn't know how to cook, I didn't know how to buy groceries, I didn't know how to budget," Johnson said. "Just buying a soda if I wanted was a luxury because you literally are down to pennies. I feel like I was saved by the grace of God so many times."
As an emergency shelter, Johnson's Central Texas Table of Grace is not allowed to house youth past their 18th birthday. Johnson said it was "heartbreaking" watching children turn 18 and have nowhere to go.
"Once they age out, the people that will help them are the sex trafficker and the drug dealer and the pedophile. It's almost like they have a target on their heads," Johnson said. "Once they become homeless or something goes wrong, it's really hard to get them back."
Shaunna Contreras cuts one of her graduation portraits for Stacy Johnson. (Kristin Finan/Austonia)
For Contreras, being part of Grace365 brings her full circle—she also spent three months in Johnson's shelter two years ago.
She now works as a caregiver at a retirement home and moved into her new apartment three weeks ago. She ultimately wants to be a phlebotomist and hopes to start college in the fall.
"Sometimes I'm very hard on myself, and I tell myself, 'You can do better.' But I'm proud of myself," Contreras said. "I'm proud of where I've gotten, because I didn't think I would get this far."
"I'm really proud of you, too," Johnson said.
Stacy Johnson, left, reads poetry written by Shaunna Contreras in Contreras' new apartment. (Kristin Finan/Austonia)
Johnson said her hope is that participants be financially independent a year to 18 months after starting the program but that Grace365 will evaluate apartment funding on a case-by-case basis. The program currently funds three apartments but plans to quickly add more and has a long-term goal of creating a tiny home village for youth who are aging out.
As for advice to anyone going through a hard time?
"Never give up," Contreras said. "Don't feel like it's the end, because it's not."
No matter how long you’ve been in Austin, Samuel Grey Horse has probably been here longer than you and the spirit of his indigenous ancestors walked the land far before anyone living did. Born and raised in the capital city in 1961, the city has grown and changed all around him.
You’ve probably seen or heard of Grey Horse before—he’s been called the “Sixth Street Cowboy” due to his penchant for riding his horses through the city streets, dressing up as Santa Claus during the holidays and making national news back in 2011 when he received a DUI while riding his mule down Sixth Street.
“I remember when I could see the capital from anywhere,” Grey Horse told Austonia during a visit to his East Austin ranch. “I never thought or imagined that I would see Austin like this.”
Now, living with his three horses, mule and dogs in East Austin on “the road that time forgot,” Grey Horse lives the “Native” lifestyle; he cares for his horses, tends to his garden, holds sacred prayer ceremonies, writes music, sings with legendary musicians and occasionally films with Richard Linklater, director of "Dazed and Confused."
Just as Austin changed over the years, so too did Grey Horse. On June 26, 2010, he was in an accident that he credits for changing his life. While riding a racing horse, Grey Horse’s saddle came loose and dragged him underneath for 150 yards. By the time they had stopped, Grey Horse had 12 broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a broken neck, broken clavicle, cracked skull, broken wrist and went into a coma.
“I had all the things done to me but that's how the universe teaches you,” Grey Horse said. “They said I would never ride a horse again or walk correctly, but no, I don't live in that world, because where I went to with my coma. I was living in another world, in the other world’s illusion.”
His road to recovery was long, arduous, miraculous and aided by his horses: Big Tex, Big Red and mule Mula, who have all been in his care for well over a decade. Grey Horse said they took care of his “energy” when he needed them most. Despite the pain that ensued from horses, his accident drew the cross-species family together.
Big Red and Mula have been living with Grey Horse for 16 and 14 years, respectively. (Sam Grey Horse/Instagram)
“I ride them around town and share them with everybody because everything has a purpose,” Grey Horse said. “You don't throw something away just because it's a little beat up. I was all beat up.”
The winters are still painful for his joints but he powers through so he can bring joy to the people of Downtown Austin in his Santa Claus costume every year.
“I can't hurt because I'm Santa Claus, and I got to be Santa for the kids and everybody. I give them inspiration and energy, I make millions happy downtown,” Grey Horse said. “I sing often with a cordless mic, my horses dance and they're happy. If I can make one person happy that makes a difference.”
Though it was never his intention, a career in music found Grey Horse and it felt right due to his mother telling him as a child he would be a singer one day. Grey Horse recently returned from his tour with The Greyhounds and Sir Woman across Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
His original song, “Crow Dog,” is a tribute to his life and the people who have passed along their loving energy in it.
Show biz can’t get enough of Grey Horse, who also models for Patagonia and Levi’s; he taught Joe Jonas how to ride a horse for a video shoot. He is now working with a British filmmaker on a documentary, and was featured on episode 10 of Linklater’s “That Animal Rescue Show.”
“I sing with Grammy winners, which is very special to me, and I write songs about my life. Very magical stuff,” Grey Horse said. “(The tour) was one of the best runs we've done for now—people are out and want to get out and the energy the guys bring is amazing.”
You’re certain to see Grey Horse around town if you spend some time near The Continental Club on South Congress or the Texas Capitol into the night. Until then, tok sha.
“There are no words for goodbye in my language, it's 'tok sha,'” Grey Horse said. “It means I’ll see you again. I'll see you soon. I'll see you in the next life.”
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For women who feel threatened while they’re out, an app that lets users easily call for help is now available in Austin.
Launching in the capital city on Tuesday, SafeUP, works by training users over the age of 18 who are known as “guardians” on how to respond in times of crisis. Those who are placing a call for help are connected to guardians less than half a mile away who, depending on the situation, can chat on the phone or physically go to the user and escort them.
SafeUP allows women to contact others who can help them when in danger. (SafeUP)
First launched in Israel, the app was co-founded by Neta Schreiber, who became interested in safety tools after her friend went missing at a house party about a decade ago.
"My friend and I searched for her in a panic, and, as we headed upstairs, we heard her voice amidst a group of men's voices," Schreiber has stated. "We went into one of the rooms and there they were—the men and our friend, half-naked, fighting them."
The assailants fled once the friends stepped in. "We managed to get there just in time," Schreiber said. "Luck and women saved my friend that night."
Schreiber told Reuters that during the testing phase of SafeUP, two guardians stepping in was enough to have people leave a woman alone.
Earlier this month, SafeUP became active in other major cities including Boston, San Francisco, Miami and New York City. There are more than 70,000 members in the global network with approximately 200 guardians in Austin so far.
Mira Marcus, a spokesperson for SafeUP, told Austonia most users are millennials and younger, and a lot of college students use the app, which made an Austin launch especially fitting. The company also has a partnership with Lime so that guardians can take free rides to reach a person.
SafeUP's partnership with Lime allows users to take free rides to a person calling for help. (SafeUP)
“You could always call the police, but they won’t necessarily be there within a matter of a minute or two. You could always speed dial your mom or girlfriend, but they won’t always be available to answer,” Marcus said. “The idea behind SafeUP is no matter where you are and what time, you can always turn on the app and see on the map the guardians around you.”
The app also allows users to call the police if the guardian finds the situation requires their backup. With that function, the app uses the phone’s camera and microphone to record evidence.
In a somewhat similar fashion, the Austin Police Department discussed possibly issuing a civilians unit to assist with non-emergency crimes over the summer. The discussion came as the department announced it would not respond to 911 calls where there was not a present danger due to a staffing shortage.
Some have turned to personal safety tech as public safety in Austin continues to be a hot topic with a record-breaking number of homicides in the city.
SafeUP joins other tech like the Citizen app and Ring cameras that track crime and include tools for reporting to the police. Some scholars and activists have criticized this tech for potential racial and gender bias, as well as expansion of surveillance. Biometric data is also taken in before users have full access to the SafeUP app so they can be verified as female, though facial recognition systems have a tendency to vary in accuracy.
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Giving Tuesday: Dell Foundation gives $38 million to combat homelessness as Austin celebrates 'radical generosity'
It's the most (philanthropic) time of the year, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation added to Central Texas' $100 million Giving Tuesday donations by promising a $38 million commitment towards combatting homelessness in Austin.
The Round Rock-based foundation, headed by tech giant Dell CEO Michael Dell, will donate the lump sum to three local nonprofits: Multiplying Goodness, Foundation Communities and LifeWorks.
Almost all of the funds—$36.6 million—are headed to Multiplying Goodness, which is a capital campaign to grow the Community First! Village in Austin, a neighborhood that offers permanent housing for the homeless. The 51-acre housing development has already rented out tiny homes to 220 formerly homeless residents and has plans to add 1,400 more units with the Multiplying Goodness program headed by Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
Dubbed a "hand up, not hand out" program by Mobile Loaves CEO and Founder Alan Graham, the neighborhood also helps residents with services and resources as they leave homelessness behind.
The Dell foundation is asking the public to match their donation as the "most talked about neighborhood in Austin" looks to reach its $150 million goal. Expansion of the Community First! Village is expected to break ground in 2022.
“As Austin grows, it’s more important than ever that we care for those most vulnerable in our communities,” Dell Foundation's co-founder Susan Dell said in a press release. “By coming together as a community, we can provide those experiencing homelessness in Central Texas with the dignity they deserve through stable housing and the opportunity to experience community again. We are honored to partner with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Foundation Communities and LifeWorks—along with the broader Central Texas community through our community match—to accelerate the difference these organizations are already making on the ground each day.”
Community First! Village, a 51-acre housing development, currently houses over 200 formerly homeless people. (Community First! Village/Facebook)
The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation also announced a $1 million donation to Foundation Communities as they construct 100 units on the Burleson property at Community First! Village. LifeWorks Austin, a nonprofit aiming to end youth homelessness, will also receive $400,000 as it looks to provide permanent housing for local youth experiencing homelessness.
All three donations will funnel to the greater cause of ending homelessness in Austin, a hot topic in local politics in recent years. Around 3,000 Austinites are currently experiencing homelessness, with nearly 50% described as "chronically homeless." That's 25% above the national average.
Giving Tuesday has seen more than just the Dells digging into their pockets: known as a "global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world," the Tuesday after Thanksgiving has ushered in donations from corporations and private individuals around the world, including $100 million coming to Central Texas nonprofit I Live Here I Give Here.
The nonprofit has become the front for Central Texas' Giving Tuesday campaign. In 2020, Austin businesses, individuals and nonprofits contributed over 20 million acts of generosity during the holiday.
This year, Home Depot surprised small Austin nonprofit Green Doors with a $30,000 donation as they work to combat homelessness.
AppSumo, a leading digital marketplace for entrepreneurs, announced that it will match donations to Future Front Texas, PeopleFund and Swan Impact Network—all Central Texas nonprofits looking to benefit the area's small business owners—from Giving Tuesday through Friday at 5 p.m.
Local philanthropy group Impact Austin awarded $226,200 in grants to four Austin nonprofit organizations on Tuesday as part of their fall giving cycle, while Austin influencer Laura Lux agreed to match any donation under $1,000 given to Austin Pets Alive! on Giving Tuesday.
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