Cleaning up the corner: Outreach and altruism at 12th and Chicon

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Michael Hicks, volunteer for the Ministry of Challenge, assists in delivering food to an apartment on 12th Street on Tuesday afternoon. The non-denominational ministry serves as a drug rehabilitation center as well as a gathering place for the nearby community.

Photo Credit: Becca Gamache | Daily Texan Staff

The immediate area surrounding the corner of 12th and Chicon streets is often described as a hub for rampant drug distribution, gang activity, homelessness and prostitution. A short bus ride from campus to the area will show the corner’s problems remain, yet nestled inside one of Austin’s most underprivileged neighborhoods is a bustling network of tightly-knit community support and altruistic social outreach.

According to sociology professor William Kelly, new development in the area has brought a changing demographic and a relatively stronger sense of safety than the corner had before the shift, when the area had an oft-publicized history of widespread crime.

The influx of new residents to the area has caused property-tax rates to increase — a social phenomena known as gentrification— thereby displacing and exploiting many of the neighborhood’s original residents who struggled to afford housing prior to gentrification. Despite gentrification and a renewed demand for public safety from residents in the area, Kelly said such developments have not come without their pitfalls. 

Queen Lola, a neighborhood preacher who owns a struggling restaurant called Nubian Queen Lola’s a block away from the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, spends her off-time providing free meals to more than 1,500 people from the back of a bus she was given. Lola said the area is much safer than it once was, but she was quick to deny that her life-long neighborhood is safe or stable by any means. 

Queen Lola, owner of Cajun restaurant Nubian Queen Lola’s, provides free meals to families of the community on a daily basis, feeding approximately 1500 people a week. Lola hopes to remodel her restaurant into a soup kitchen in order to service more people. (Photo Credit: Becca Gamache | Daily Texan Staff)

Inside a colorful, albeit lonely restaurant, Lola entertained a single customer. People on the street — Lola’s “brothers and sisters” —frequently stopped to exchange hellos and warm embraces with “the Queen.”

“My whole life I been here,” Lola said. “I raised my children right up there on Hungry Hill. I was here when it was really bad … I woke up one morning and seen what shouldn’t have been 30 years ago, and I’ve been fighting like a dog ever since. I been right here in this community for 30 years blessing, touching and healing.”

Lola’s daily visits to several projects in the area is a personal commitment to social outreach among several, larger organizations’ efforts to provide for the impoverished neighborhood. 

FreeStore Austin, an outreach initiative of the United Methodist Church, provides clothing and other necessities entirely free-of-charge to residents in the area. The modest building is situated across from 12th and Salina streets — now the most notorious drug-exchange spot in the neighborhood.

Matt Cardona, a FreeStore specialist who manages the store, said the community respects and cares for those who genuinely try to help. 

“I even left the doors unlocked one day, and nothing was taken,” Cardona said. “When the people see that you’re here for them and that you care for them, they respect. I got homeless guys that sleep on the back porch. Nothing happens to the building. They care about the people that care about them.”

Also located in the heart of the neighborhood is a non-denominational ministry called the Ministry of Challenge, a drug rehabilitation and housing center that opened in 1993. 

Grady Howie, Ministry of Challenge program director, said the area is not as plagued by crime as it once was, but maintains that the community needs more outside support. 

“We’re the only church in this neighborhood that provides for these people,” Howie said.

John Bailey, participant and resident at the Ministry of Challenge, agreed with Howie, but said the Ministry’s program is very strict. Bailey even called the program “exploitative,” citing the lack of pay for the work thrust upon the Ministry’s residents. 

Lola had similar concerns and has long been suspicious of other outreach organizations in the area. 

“I promise to God none of these outreach organizations are providing for these people,” Lola said of major initiatives like “Mission: Possible!,” a non-denominational Christian organization that focuses outreach at the inner city. “They came to the neighborhood lying, talking about how they been helping for 20 years. And I know that’s a lie because if they really were, I wouldn’t be doing all that I’m doing.” 

Lola, who will often park her bus outside FreeStore Austin in solidarity, said she hopes to turn her struggling restaurant into a soup kitchen. 

“I’m just not the kind of person to just sit and watch somebody in a situation and do nothing,” Lola said. “You give someone something they need they gonna praise God … then they gonna thank God for you, and you just got blessed — and that’s what it’s all about.”