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Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

Meet The Volunteers Who Housed (And Fed) 200 People Experiencing Homelessness In San Marcos This Week

IMG_3664.jpg
Courtesy of Zach Sombrano
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Zach Sombrano (left) and Hannah Durrance (center) and other volunteers pose for a picture at the Southside Community Center in San Marcos.

Hannah Durrance got only 58 calls on Monday.

That's a quiet day for the mother of four and director of the H.O.M.E Center, a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness in Hays County.

"I had about 300 calls [on Sunday]," she says. "I'm spoiled today."

For the past week, Durrance has fielded calls, organized volunteers, dropped people off at motels, driven on ice to deliver meals — all while dealing with a dying car battery and coming up with creative ways to keep her family warm during a week of extreme weather and a power outage.

In just a few days, her organization raised $25,000, mostly to get more than 200 people experiencing homelessness into motels across San Marcos. The money also paid for food, blankets, hand warmers, bottled water and other supplies needed to survive the winter storm.

And how is Durrance handling all this?

"Emotionally, I don't know right now," she laughs. "Ask me that after this is all over."

It's been a collaborative effort between dozens of volunteers, the City of San Marcos, organizations like the Southside Community Center, and local churches and restaurants, Durrance says.

Especially when it comes to getting people fed. Soup with cornbread from the Seventh Day Adventists for lunch one day. Donated pizzas for dinner the next. Durrance bought buckets of chicken another day to go with a side of veggies donated by a local restaurant.

"Everybody got a hot meal," she says.

SoulFoodCreations
Courtesy of Zach Sambrano
Ramika and Willie Adams, owners of SoulFood Creations, cooked chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and rice for people experiencing homelessness that the H.O.M.E. Center had put up in hotels. At right is Meisha Lynn.

Durrance knows what it's like to go without. She's been homeless three times. The single mother lived in a motel at one point, working 60 hours a week and juggling classes as a full-time college student at Texas State University.

"I didn't have the credit score needed or the income requirements to get into an apartment or house," she says.

It's hurdles like these that Durrance says keeps people in endless cycles of homelessness. And it's these hurdles she tries to remedy through her work at the H.O.M.E. Center. But the thing that drives her is that she truly knows how awful it feels.

"I felt like a lot of people didn't listen when I was homeless. I hated the feeling of being looked over," she says. "People didn't make eye contact, people didn't hear me. ... And so I felt like I spent a lot of my time being silenced. And when I would speak up, I was criticized for speaking out."

When she was in college, she decided to raise awareness about what it was like to be homeless. So she got a sign and listed six simple facts about herself:

Single mom. Four kids. $62,000 student loans. 3.2 GPA. Texas State college student. Homeless.

Durrance wanted the other students to see that "this is not something that's outside of them. This is also part of their community."

As soon as they saw the word "homeless," she says, they'd look away.

The next day, she overheard two women talking about a person "begging for money" on campus and pretending to be a college student.

"Why didn't you believe her?" Durrance says she asked.

"Well, she was homeless," the women responded.

"They never saw me," Durrance says. "They saw the sign, and they looked through me. ... I know how degrading it is. I know how it tears apart your soul. I know how it leaves you feeling broken and unheard and rejected. And eventually, over time, all you can do is apologize for being you. And nobody should have to feel that way."

Raising Money And Awareness

For Durrance, the dire situation this week demonstrated the need for transitional housing and more assistance for the homeless in San Marcos.

"If you get more people off the streets, you don't have to do quite so much for emergencies," she says. "We don't have to spend days trying to get everybody into a safe location, if we've already got them housed and we've already got them stable."

Last week, the H.O.M.E Center presented a proposal to the city about a transitional housing program it developed that would cost about $750,000.

But with extreme weather on its way, volunteers knew they needed more immediate help.

"We can try to get people blankets and heaters and all these other things that we have in our storage unit. [But] it's going to take so much more," Durrance told volunteer Zach Sambrano.

Sambrano, who ran for San Marcos City Council last year, decided to use his base to raise money. He set "a very ambitious" goal of $10,000.

"[I] knew that we needed to reach this goal to have these funds to make sure that we can actually put people in motels," he says, "and not just for a day or two, but until this [weather] actually cleared up."

Sambrano posted a selfie on Facebook last week with two men he helped put up at a motel and shared their circumstances.

Donations to his GoFundMe started pouring in. By the end of the day, he had raised $1,600. The next day, another $700.

"I think it really made people realize ... we had literally people walking in our town, pushing in a cart, their clothes, their food, and the only heater that they had with no place to go," Sambrano says.

On Sunday night, he shared his experiences on Facebook again – driving on icy streets, distributing tacos, housing people in motels.

"We were at $6,000 when I was about to fall asleep," Sambrano says. "I woke up in the middle of the night to find out that we were ... almost at $8,000."

By Wednesday, Sambrano had surpassed his "ambitious" goal. As of Friday afternoon, the fund was at $13,500. Another $13,000 was raised separately.

"I hate to say that it took a storm to really get this to the point that it is," he says. "But at the same time, I think now the community has seen now more than ever that it's actually a real issue and it needs attention, and it can't go on like this any longer."

Durrance agrees, especially because the people experiencing homelessness in Hays County aren't strangers, she says; they're people folks know.

"I think there's a misconception that these are out-of-towners, they're outsiders, they don't belong here ... but the majority of these people are our people. They're people we've overlooked and we've ignored," she says. "We don't see them because they're in their cars, and then back into a motel or somebody's house, and then back at the motel, and they don't have any stability."

Durrance says the week has been "unreal."

"But I don't think we left anybody out. I can say that we succeeded in that," she says.

Got a tip? Email Riane Roldan at rroldan@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @RianeRoldan.

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