Danielle was desperate for safety when she stood outside her home with Austin police for hours, trying to figure out how to get away from the man who had been abusing her.
She had nowhere safe to take her three children. All she had was a spot on a waiting list and instructions to call back every day.
"All of the shelters were so full, even surrounding Austin shelters," Danielle, now 35, recalled.
That was four years ago, long before the pandemic lockdown further depleted resources for victims of abuse, cut off family support systems, increased substance abuse and tension over unemployment, isolated victims and made escaping domestic abuse more difficult, advocates told Austonia.
Now, in addition to an increase in the calls for help, pandemic-era social distancing has cut the available shelter space—usually full with waitlists even before pandemic—by roughly half, advocates say.
According to recent numbers from the Texas Council on Family Violence, about 75 percent of families in Travis County are turned away from domestic-violence shelters due to lack of space.
Programs like Survive2Thrive, which uses partnerships with hotels to get these families to emergency safety, are expanding to meet the need.
"There's always been an issue with displacement and homelessness for victims of domestic violence... but with COVID-19, it kind of opened it up," said Courtney Santana, founder and CEO of Survive2Thrive Foundation, a seven-year-old Austin organization.
As Austin grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence incidents are on the rise.
The SAFE Alliance, which runs a shelter and offers services, saw a 25% increase in calls to their hotline in March through June of this year, compared to last year. In the same time frame this year, the Texas Advocacy Project, which provides free legal services, saw an 82% increase in the number of abuse victims "coming out of the woodwork," said CEO Heather Bellino.
"The severity is on the increase," she said. "The level of fear is heightened."
In April, Survive2Thrive established the COVID-19 Domestic Violence Phone Bank for police and referring agencies to allow them to more quickly find shelter for families in need. The following month, the group secured nearly $800,000 in funding from the city and expanded a network of Austin hotels where survivors can stay up to 14 days until they can find more permanent housing.
"It just opened an opportunity for us to have a further conversation about this lack of capacity and this gap in services for survivors that can't get into the shelter or don't qualify for shelter services," Santana said.
Since then, the foundation has been able to serve more than 350 people, helping more than 130 families, Santana said. The group plans to ask for two more years, as the money is being spent quickly on the growing demand.
"We have over 1,500 rooms in the Austin area and partnerships with about 10 local hotels, and two of them take COVID-positive people," Santana said. "So you don't really have to turn anybody away as long as you have case management to support them."
Danielle said Survive2Thrive—where she now takes hotline calls from others like her—got her into a hotel, helped her change her phone number and email and win a protection order against her abuser.
They still offer support, amid the fear that her abuser could one day try and come back, she said.
"That's what makes me feel more comfortable that I don't have to do something that's going to put me in the penitentiary, or my kids don't have to do something that's going to re-traumatize them," she said.
A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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