Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center looks to expand, but falls short of funding

The Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center is located right in the heart of a neighborhood in South Austin. Throughout the years, it's found itself at the center of the debate about how to address the homeless crisis in that area.

"I think people are really frustrated with homelessness and really frustrated with city policy, and they just need someone to take it out on," said Mark Hilbelink, the executive director of the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center.

When it comes to Hilbelink’s church, and the homeless, he said he’s heard it all.

"On Twitter, there's like a whole line of things saying 'this is Sunrise's fault' and I'm like that's like a half mile from here," said Hilbelink.

Most of what he hears now is that the center’s work is great, but it’s not in the best area.

Sunrise offers services to help the South Austin homeless community, not far from homes and a school.

"What it's all about is helping people exit homelessness into a situation where they can thrive" said Hilbelink. 

It's a hub to address all issues that come with living on the streets, like a need for basic food and clothing or mental and physical healthcare, substance abuse care, and housing help.

Recently, the group has been looking at expanding out of its neighborhood, even to Williamson County.

"We can have the ability for people not to have to travel significant distances" said Hilbelink. "They can be served in the areas they are, but that also lessens the amount of people in one center is having to deal with."

With a new center, Hilbelink wants to focus on early intervention resources.

"A housing program might cost in the millions and millions of dollars," said Hilbelink. "For one or two million dollars, you could probably serve a lot of people in an early intervention program."

It's cheaper, but at this point it's still too costly. Sunrise said it lacks both private and public funding.

"We'd be happy to open four of these next week, if the city wants to fund it," said Hilbelink.

It opted for a different digital center in 2022 to provide resources without people having to show up in-person.

Just in the last year, it said it's seen 25 percent fewer people at the center, but an increase in calls to the hotline.

"We believe that if we had another location in town a similar thing would happen."

As sunrise figures out the way forward, Hilbelink also said that for every finger-pointing tweet, he finds there's also support just down the street.

"A lot of our biggest supporters and our biggest volunteers are also part of the neighborhood."

Hilbelink added the owners of P. Terry’s came to visit recently and wanted to raise money for the group.

On Saturday, March 23, every P. Terry's in the Austin area, even Williamson County, will be donating all proceeds to Sunrise.