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There's a Different Kind of Homelessness for Onion Creek Flood Victims

Joy Diaz, KUT News

When you think about the word “homeless,” what comes to mind?

Homelessness can include a person who lacks housing. But it is also includes people in transitional housing. That's where Lydia Huerta, her husband and their three kids found themselves after they lost their home to flooding October 31.

Huerta says she "never really felt panic" until she lost her home. 

The Huertas were one of hundreds of families in panic. For a few days after the flood, they took refuge in a hotel. Other families from Onion Creek doubled up with relatives and friends. But all of those arrangements were temporary, and many were unsustainable.

After a few days at the hotel, the Huertas needed a place fast. So Lydia bought an RV with some insurance money and parked it in front of their damaged home. The space inside the RV is tight.

“At the time when I saw it, I was like ‘Oh, this is huge!’” Lydia says with a laugh. But it didn’t feel so big once she moved in with her family of five.

The kids were grateful to have a safe place, but things got tough. One of Lydia’s girls cried a lot. Her other daughter was always snappy and angry. It didn’t help that the only place for her to sleep was the RV’s dining area. Every night, they’d push the table down and flatten the booth-like seats to make them into a bed.  “And then, everyday, trying to get [the table] back up into those latches,” Lydia says. “Fold everything up. Put this little leg down. So that we’d have a place to eat”

School remained a constant for the girls, and Lydia’s husband soon returned to work. That stability helped ease some of the mental stress the family went through. Even Lydia’s five-year-old got admitted into a pre-K program that helped him spend time with kids his age. But Lydia stays home, and she says it got overwhelming.

“Once everything’s been taken away from you and your routine has changed, you just don’t even know how to get that back.”

Down the road from Lydia Huerta is where Stacy Sorto lives. After the flood, the Sortos ended up living at Stacy’s sister’s apartment.

Stacy says because of her sister, she didn’t see herself as homeless. But doubling-up due to an emergency situation puts people in a homelessness category regardless. That definition has helped many Onion Creek families get access to services from places like the Austin Independent School District while they rebuild their lives.

AISD’s Cathy Requejo leads Project HELP, an initiative that guides homeless students through the district. Requejo says “just yesterday, [she] was still talking to families [who need help].” After the floods, more than 300 students found themselves in “temporary living situations because of the flood,” she says.

Homeless status entitles students to certain things, like the pre-K service Huerta’s son was able to receive. Students also receive free lunches and transportation to school.

AISD’s count of students homeless from the floods fluctuates daily. Some students are moving back into their homes, while others are moving from one temporary situation to the next.

Stacy Sorto and her family just moved back into their home after months of living in a her sister’s cramped apartment. They’re back at home, but they still don’t have their privacy: Stacy’s cousin, displaced by the flood, moved in with her.

As for Lydia Huerta and her family, they’re starting to move into their home.

Their next-door neighbors aren’t so lucky: they’re still living in their RV. Like hundreds of families in Onion Creek, they have a home, but they’re technically homeless.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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