Dove Springs

Richard Tuttle, a longtime school crossing guard in Southeast Austin, died last week.
Lynda M. González / KUT

At the intersection of Palo Blanco and Pleasant Valley, near Mendez Middle School, there’s a makeshift memorial: Signs, balloons, candles and handwritten notes have been hung to pay homage to the man who guided school kids to safety at that intersection for the past 15 years.

Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT

Monday night, Yvette Griego walked into Perez Elementary School in Dove Springs. She followed the hallway to the library, where City of Austin staff was gathered to field questions about home buyouts from victims of the recent Central Texas floods. Many of the affected Dove Springs residents, though, say that they’ve heard these answers from the City before — two years ago, after flooding hit their neighborhood around Halloween in 2013.

Courtesy of El Mundo Newspaper

On Saturday, Congressman Lloyd Doggett, State Sen. Kirk Watson and a number of community leaders will gather at a new southeast Austin health center that’s been years in the making.

Photo by KUT News

Isabel Rios is standing outside the Fiesta Supermarket on Stassney Lane, approaching shoppers as they walk toward the store. It's the only early voting location near Dove Springs.

"Hola!" she says, walking toward a couple shoppers. "Hello. Votan? Votan, señoras?” 

Rios is stumping for District 2 city council candidate Edward Reyes at Fiesta, the closest early voting location to the Dove Springs neighborhood. She and Reyes say their job has turned from campaigning to encouraging people to vote at all. 

“Just talking and encouraging people to vote," Rios says. "Trying to engage people as we can.”

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

For years, many Austin residents have made structural changes to their homes  like turning their garage into an apartment  without a permit. But the City of Austin has been taking a more proactive approach to code compliance lately, especially in Southeast Austin. 

"Austin Code is in the neighborhood daily," says Alanna Reed, a spokesperson with the city's Office of Code Compliance.

KUT News

Welcome to Dove Springs. 

Driving through the neighborhood, you may not realize you’re in the same city that’s home to Franklin Barbeque, Barton Springs or the Continental Club. Five miles down I-35 from the Texas Capitol lies a modest residential area in the city’s southeast corner, one of the last neighborhoods many Austin residents pass as they head to the airport. 

It’s also one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods with a history of gangs and drugs, poverty, teen pregnancy and obesity.

But it's a neighborhood filled with hardworking parents, multi-generational families and cultural diversity. There’s always been a lot of pride, but recently, residents are giving the neighborhood a voice. They’re advocating for better services, organizing events and this fall, they’ll elect a city council member to specifically represent their district.

Sam Ortega/KUT

Mendez Middle School lies in the heart of Dove Springs. It’s the only middle school in the neighborhood – so if you grow up in the area, it’s more than likely you’ve walked these halls.

Students here deal with lots of challenges. For one, more students at Mendez have at least one parent in jail than any other school in the district. Nearly 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most students are being raised by just one parent. Others are undocumented – or their parents are.

Bryan Winter for KUT News

This article is part of KUT's yearlong series Turning the Corner, taking a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.

Ron Gonzales loves numbers. It makes sense: he used to be a math teacher before he became a principal. His love of hard data is obvious when you enter Mendez Middle School, where he has been the principal for the past four years.  One of the first things you see is a bulletin board with each grade’s daily attendance rate. Next to it, he posts how much money the school lost due to absences that day.

“For example, yesterday we had 23 sixth graders and we also know lose $45 per scholar per day, so we lost $1,035 just for grade six," Gonzales says, pointing to the bulletin board.

Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT

Dove Springs in Southeast Austin is just six miles from downtown – what many real estate agents consider a prime location. But the area is also one of the poorest parts of Austin. And for decades, it's had a less than desirable reputation.

Despite all that, change is coming to Dove Springs – with some believing they're witnessing the beginning of gentrification.

The area has traditionally been filled with low-income renters, many who are recent immigrants and don't speak English. Data may still point to those facts. But on the ground, the neighborhood is going through what many believe is a fast transformation.

flickr.com/dongkwan

This article is part of KUT's yearlong series Turning the Corner, taking a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the Austin school district reported 303 student pregnancies districtwide. 22 of those pregnancies were middle school students.

Despite its location in the neighborhood with the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Travis County, none of them were at Mendez Middle School. So what happened? 

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

On the surface of the Onion Creek neighborhood, there’s progress.

The community is slowly recovering from 2013's deadly Halloween floods. Many families are back in their homes, even though most homes have yet to be fully rebuilt. But scratch the surface, and people are still suffering the psychological effects of that night.

Often when we hear about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it's in the context of war. But David Evans, CEO of Austin/Travis County Integral Care, says PTSD can affect those who survive any traumatic experience. 

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

It’s taken the City of Austin and Travis County almost six months to finalize a report detailing emergency response to the 2013 Halloween floods: what worked, what needs improvement and what – flat out – did not work.

See the full report here [PDF].

The report repeatedly highlights communication problems: between agencies, then between first responders, then with the general public. There was no clear channel of communication. There was no awareness about the kind of people who lived in the affected area either: a majority-minority community that does not primarily communicate using English.

For the past seven months KUT has focused on the Dove Springs neighborhood in southeast Austin. We’ve been looking at issues facing this largely poor, immigrant community: access to healthcare, educational issues, affordable housing – and how organizations and individuals are trying to bring change.

In October, we went to a boxing ring at Mendez Middle School. An after-school program there is teaching the kids boxing as a way to provide some structure after classes let out.

We went back to the ring recently – and found quite a few things had changed. 

Kate McGee, KUT News

Since August of last year, KUT has been looking at the Dove Springs neighborhood in Southeast Austin in its Turning the Corner series. It’s a neighborhood trying to rise above the challenges of poverty – and one common theme that’s been repeated by residents is that they feel ignored.

Cynthia Valadez used to live in the Dove Springs neighborhood.

“That was the one area of Travis County and the City of Austin that failed to get the clinics, the offices, the grocery stores, the doctor’s offices," Valadez says. "Anything that’s health related didn’t go there. You couldn’t do anything in that community."

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

The federal government is sending $11.8 million to Travis County to help buy out homes in the flood-prone Onion Creek neighborhood.

More than 600 homes in the area were damaged or destroyed in last October’s flooding, but Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s office says the effort to buy out homes and restore the area to its natural habitat goes back to another flash flood there in 1998.

Jon Shapley for KUT News

This article is part of KUT's year-long series called Turning the Corner, which takes a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.

In low-income neighborhoods around Austin, 87 percent of children entering kindergarten are considered unprepared for school, which means many of them lack basic literacy skills. At Mendez Middle School in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, that struggle is obvious. Last year, less than half of Mendez sixth graders passed the state standardized test for reading. 

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

The city of Austin limits the number of unrelated adults who can live in a single-family home. Right now, that limit is six.

But there’s a push before the Austin City Council to lower that number to four.  The Austin City Council meets today to decide whether to impose new rules that would lower occupancy limits – and do away with what some call “stealth dorms.”

Jon Shapley for KUT News

This article is part of KUT's year-long series called Turning the Corner, which takes a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. 

KUT is documenting those efforts, the people trying to make a difference, the setbacks they face and how they work to overcome them. Listen to more stories here.

Dove Springs is the only neighborhood in Austin where you can find a parole office – one of the reasons more parolees end up in Southeast Austin than any other neighborhood.

Jon Shapley for KUT News

The mostly uninhabited neighborhood of Onion Creek in southeast Austin has experienced some growth. But it’s growth the few neighbors who are back do not welcome.

Mold and mildew is growing in many of the homes that were left uninhabited after last year’s floods, which could create health problems for those living in Onion Creek.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

  Chronic absenteeism is a common problem among low-income schools; Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood is no exception. The neighborhood has the largest concentration of high absenteeism students in the city – and teachers say there are some students who miss up to 40 days of school in one semester.

But many students aren’t skipping class to avoid schoolwork. Some lack transportation; others are dealing with health issues. Still, other have responsibilities like raising siblings or working to support their families.

Isay Medrano is one of those students.

Joy Diaz/KUT

The flood-stricken neighborhood of Onion Creek honored the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today by cleaning a community park that’s been covered with debris since last year’s Halloween flood.

Metallic doors, glass from broken windows, gas tanks were among the many items strewn about the park. Mary-Lee Plumb-Mentjes filled an entire bucket with broken glass. “I’ve always picked up trash,” Plumb-Mentjes said. “We’ve been given two hands [and] I feel we should use [them] when we see something,”

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT

The city of Austin has made offers to buy at least two dozen homes damaged by the Halloween flood. Why then, are some homeowners refusing to sell?

Floods are nothing new in South East Austin’s Onion Creek neighborhood. And neither is the city’s buyout program. It began back in 1998. The idea has always been to buy homes in the floodplain using taxpayer money to avoid future loss of life and property damages.

Terry Morris, a contractor and a real estate agent in Austin, owns a duplex in Onion Creek that’s been on the city’s buyout list for years. He recently opted out of the program.

Spencer Selvidge for KUT News

Damaris Covarrubias lives in Dove Springs, with her entire extended family. It is a huge family. So large in fact, that Damaris has never stopped to actually count how many there are.

“Okay, my grandparents, I think they had 9 kids. Cousins? I think there’s like 30 or 40 of us. Including the little ones? I don’t know. And now every cousin’s having babies so it keeps on growing and growing,” Covarrubias admits. 

The vast majority of her cousins have become parents while they were still in their teens, and that’s pretty typical for Dove Springs.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

It is property tax season and, for the people affected by last October’s floods, there will be some relief. The disaster declaration Texas Governor Rick Perry signed in December means flood victims can have their properties re-assessed and can make their payments in installments.

The relief will be small, since it will only cover the months of November and December, but Travis County Tax Assessor Bruce Elfant said at a press conference today that, for over 600 properties, the relief means they’ll have a smaller tax payment. 

Veronica Zaragovia, KUT News

Community health workers – or promotoras de salud – with the Latino Health Care Forum are collecting data about people still living in Dove Springs after the Halloween floods.

"We have heard a lot of really sad stories …you just start crying," says promotora Norma Lopez. “We’re going to be working on-hand with our people. Refer them to whatever they need, any kind of help.”

Promotoras say they spent about a month getting feedback from people who still need help, especially medical care. The results will identify Dove Springs families still in need.

Joy Diaz, KUT News

In Southeast Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, crime is a constant.

Ever since an uptick in crime in the 1990s, police have maintained a visible presence in the neighborhood – and residents of Dove Springs haven’t always had a favorable view of the Austin Police Department.

There was a time when the department’s relationship with Dove Springs was especially strained. During the summer of 2005, APD Officer Julie Schroeder shot and killed 18 year-old Dove Springs native Daniel Rocha.

A re-enactment video created by the department in investigating Rocha’s death is set on Pleasant Valley Road – one of Dove Springs’ main thoroughfares.

Connie Gonzaes, Facebook

As people are gearing up for Thanksgiving, many families impacted by last month’s flooding are still trying to put their lives back together.The floods severely damaged more than 600 homes and many of those people still don’t have a permanent place to stay.

But residents came together Sunday night to provide some flood victims with a Thanksgiving dinner and a place to escape the cold temperatures, if only for a few hours.

The event was organized by Dove Springs resident Robert Kibbie and Pastor Richard Villarreal with The Springs Community Church. Overall, 120 meals were served. Volunteers also delivered 60 meals to people who were not able to attend the actual event.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

This year, KUT News is chronicling the challenges and changes affecting Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood in a series called “Turning the Corner.”

These stories have taken on added urgency in the aftermath of Austin’s Halloween floods, where flooding directly affected many Dove Springs residents. 

Bene Jacobs’ morning routine hasn’t changed that much. She still gets up before 6 a.m., before it’s light outside.

In the darkness, at her cousin’s house in Del Valle, Bene struggles to find her way into the room where her children sleep. “Still learning all the light switches,” she whispers.

Roy Varney for KUT News

For the first time in five years, southeast Austin’s Langford Elementary School has a free book program.

Langford, where 65 percent of the students are learning English as a second language, is able to relaunch its Reading is Fundamental program with help from a neighborhood church.

Richard Villarreal is the lead pastor at Springs Community Church. He approached Langford principal Dounna Poth last spring and asked how his church could help the school. 

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

Early on the morning of Oct. 31, as waters rose to historic levels in Onion Creek, two of the flood gauges that officials rely on to monitor water levels weren't working. The flooding heavily damaged more than 600 homes and killed five.

One gauge was completely submerged by water, damaging the equipment – which isn't waterproof. But the other had malfunctioned before the flooding even began. And more than two weeks after the Halloween Floods, city and emergency officials still don't know why.

The gauges, which are managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), provide emergency responders with critical information during floods about how fast and how high flood waters are rising. In Austin, there are 130 flood gauges that measure water levels, rainfall and low-water crossings 24 hours a day.

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