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    CUTLINE: Michael Cooper has been liv-ing under the Barons Creek bridge for several years after breaking his neck during an accident on a creek. Since he can’t get on disability, he can’t find a job that suits him best. — Standard-Radio Post/Samuel Sutton

Without a home in Fredericksburg

Local shares story of homelessness

Corrections and clarifications: This article contained some incorrect information that we attempt to correct below. All of the information in the article has also been corrected.

  • The Hill Country Community Needs Council does not transport people to shelters in Austin and San Antonio or drive people to the county line. They do provide referrals to shelters and other organizations and may provide a bus ticket when appropriate.
  • The Gillespie County Ministerial Alliance provides food and gas vouchers to transients, not the Law Enforcement Center.
  • Cindy Heifner, executive director of HCCNC, said for many different reasons, some people choose to remain homeless. She did not say, "Most homeless enjoy living on the streets and don't want any help or "you can give them a mansion and a million dollar car and ask for only one responsibility, but they won't do it because they don't have the same freedom."
  • Heifner is a native of Kansas, not California. She served as executive director of a homeless shelter in California.

Michael Cooper has been living homeless in Fredericksburg for several years now, and because he has no other options, he is currently living under the Barons Creek bridge.

Cooper, 43, moved to Fredericksburg about 25 years ago from the Phoenix area where he grew up. The reason for the move was to escape a bad home life.

Cooper didn’t want to go into details of what his real family did to him, but he said the bottom line is that they were bad people.

“They gave me up when I was 11, and I ran away from that and got raised by somebody else,” Cooper said.

Because of how bad his home life was, Cooper said he began selling methamphetamines to make money for himself. He said he felt like he couldn’t trust anybody, so he had to find a way to help himself.

Cooper was eventually put in jail when his father turned him in. After that, things took a turn for the worse.

“I got out of jail and overdosed,” Cooper said.

In an attempt to turn his life around, he came to Texas.

“I moved here when I was 18,” Cooper said. “I came here to make a better life for myself, and I did that.”

Cooper worked in several different stores for a while. His first job in Fredericksburg was at a convenience store. He worked there for a bit, until moving to the Live Oak Care Center, where he met Allen Oatman and his family. He moved in with them, and instantly became like a part of the family.

“Michael lived with us for 10 years and he was like a brother to me,” said Raychel Nelson, Oatman’s daughter.

Oatman and Cooper would later start a business together. In that job, Cooper would work on building houses and other types of construction work.

“I loved my job and I loved working,” Cooper said. “In fact, I loved it so much that I got to a site at around 4:30 a.m. to work one time and I got a ticket because the law was I wasn’t supposed to start on that site until 6 a.m.”

Nelson said Cooper would have so much energy and work was a way for him to relieve that.

“I could work for hours on a backhoe without a break,” Cooper said. “Sitting still was not one of my fortes.”

This all changed when Cooper had a bad accident while on a creek.

He and his friend were out on a creek when the bank he was standing on gave way, and he fell onto some rocks and severely injured his neck.

Cooper said he needs to get on disability, but he can’t get a doctor to help him with it, so he can’t work.

“I can’t feel my hands most of the time and it’s painful to just hold up my head,” Cooper said. “I can work for about a day, but then I need three or four days of rest.”

Seeing as he can’t get on disability, he can’t get a job. Which means he can’t earn enough money to have his own place. Therefore, he has to make it a different way.

Cooper said there aren’t that many homeless people in Fredericksburg since so many businesses are hiring. He only knows of a few, which include one person who lives with him.

A law enforcement official who wishes to remain unnamed said there are about three seasonal homeless people who stay in Fredericksburg when the weather is fair. There are also several people who stop and stay either in their cars or on the streets while traveling.

Cooper confirmed that he has seen a few drifters through the years. These people usually stay for a few days, try to steal enough resources as they can, and leave.

“These are the type of people who give people like me a bad name,” Cooper said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody, and I usually don’t ask for help unless it’s an emergency.”

According to a report received from an Open Record’s Request, the Fredericksburg Police Department only had one call for service regarding a homeless issue in 2019. That came on Sept. 6, regarding an issue under a bridge in the 600 block of East Main Street. Three more officer-officiated follow up calls were made to that same location.

Cindy Heifner, now the executive director of Hill Country Community Needs Council, previously worked as an Executive Director of a homeless shelter in California. She said while homelessness isn't as prevalent in Fredericksburg as it was where she used to work, there are a few. She said the HCCNC will receive four to five calls per month from those needing help.

Heifner said the Needs Council will feed them and try to talk to them, so that they can figure out how to help. She has found the most common reason why those who call are homeless is due to alienation from family.

“That’s the most common reason,” Heifner said. “Whether it was the person’s decision or the family’s decision, it could be due to domestic violence or another struggle that’s caused the alienation, but that’s mainly the reason people come to us."

Heifner added that she also gets reasons like mental illness, addiction and financial struggles, such as recently losing a house because they are jobless.

After speaking to them, the HCCNC will offer ways to help, including helping them find a job through organizations like the Christian Job Corps.

The HCCNC will also provide referrals to shelters and other organizations, and provide a bus ticket when appropriate.

She said the Gillespie Ministerial Alliance will also help these people by providing food and gas vouchers to transients.

Other organizations in the area offer assistance, as well.

Fredericksburg Food Pantry helps provide food for those who are in need throughout Gillespie County.

Cooper said there aren’t enough resources to help the homeless people in Fredericksburg, and that’s likely because there aren’t enough of them.

He also said there aren’t enough resources for young people who are having troubles with bad home lives.

“There’s the Boys and Girls Club, but that’s not enough,” Cooper said. “They really need to have something else to give them something to do because otherwise, they have all this time and I’m sorry, but the devil dances in empty pockets. If you’ve got plenty of spare time, you’re going to find something stupid to get into like drugs.”

Lauren Booke Westgate, who helped Cooper by donating food, water and other supplies, also said there isn’t enough help. She confirmed what Heifner said by saying several people in Fredericksburg are one paycheck away from being homeless. However, if enough people were to donate their time and effort, that could change.

“Maybe if a church could donate a building space and people could donate their time for haircuts, to wash their clothes and to help give them rides to places like the Kerrville shelter, then that’s all they need,” Westgate said.

Heifner said for many  different reasons, some people choose to remain homeless. 

Cooper said that isn’t the case in Fredericksburg, as many of the people here do want help, but they just don’t have the resources. Westgate agreed, and said there’s more to it than people just living under a bridge because they feel like they have to.

“If most of these people had just a little bit of help, then they would be able to get back on their feet,” Westgate said.”

Kerrville has a similar issue with their homeless population, as one of the city’s councilmembers, Delayne Sigerman, said they have about six to 20 homeless people in the area per week or month.

“It’s hard to get an exact number since it’s tracked separately by organizations who help them,” Sigerman said.

Sigerman, who has been researching homelessness in Kerrville for about a year, says there are about 15 organizations in Kerrville who offer assistance to those in need.

Two of those organizations are the BCFS Health and Human Services, which help people in need who are between the ages of 14 and 26, and the Dietert Center, which helps older people in need.

“There are a lot of elderly people whose budgets are tight,” Sigerman said.

With rent, pharmaceuticals payments and having to pay for food and other items, it can be challenging for them, Sigerman said. The Dietert Center will offer assistance with that.

Heifner, Sigerman and area organizations still want to help.

“I started working on this about a year ago and learned it’s not a problem you can solve overnight,” Sigerman said. “But if you can help just one person, it makes it worthwhile.”

Fredericksburg Standard

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