Men on Parole Search For Fresh Start in Austin's Dove Springs
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.
When parolees are released from prison, they're dumped on the corner of Woodward and Highway 71, where they can check in at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice office. After that, many parolees have no place to go. That's where Rosemary Follis steps in.
Two decades ago, Follis bought the building that houses the TDCJ offices.
"It was a flea-market," Follis says. Now, she says, "we’re called 'The Cave.'"
On the other side she built rooms, which she rents to parolees who are looking for a place to start over.
"When we first was trying to get the zoning for this place everybody was like, 'Oh! We don’t want the people from Dove Springs riding on the bus with, you know, with our guys, you know?' Because most of our guys catch the bus," she explains. "And I said, 'Well, I don’t want my people riding on the bus with Dove Springs people!'" Follis says some of the worst sex offenders lived in those rooms.
In the beginning, the bus fights between the community and the parolees were constant. But, things have mellowed down, when Follis got a third tenant ten years ago: a non-profit that helps parolees put their lives back together.
Mickey Powers runs the nonprofit, called Integrated Enterprises. She says the first thing she does is give the men make-overs, starting with their clothes.
"We try to get men’s clothes from anywhere we possibly can," Powers says. Men show up in pants that don’t fit them well. Most of them have been locked up for years and their old clothes are either too small or too big when they come out. They can’t wear belts in prison, so they get cords for their pants instead. They are issued a pair of "slipper-like" shoes made in China.
"It’s one of the first things they all throw away," Powers says. "They can’t stand them." Powers brings the guys to the clothes closet that sits at the top of The Cave. She says the lock up the really good athletic shoes and new socks for new residents, who are less likely to have a job and able to provide for themselves.
Powers also gets the guys fresh haircuts. Once she transforms them, few people know they are on parole.
Today, it seems the parolees blend into the neighborhood more than they did in years past. Just a stone’s throw from The Cave is an upscale furniture store. No one there wanted to talk on the record about how they feel about their neighbors, but the next building over is a charter school called Harmony School of Excellence.
Dana Moses-Loftin, the assistant principal at Harmony, says the K -12 campus serves 730 students from the Dove Springs neighborhood and Del Valle. Moses-Loftin says since the school moved into the neighborhood five years ago, it hasn't had any interaction with the parolees living nearby. The school moved into this area precisely because it’s part of its mission to serve under-privileged children who are eager to succeed.
"Our kids have really involved parents. We don’t have a lot of safety concerns? And so far, things have been great," Dana Moses-Loftin says.
By all accounts, Dove Springs is changing. More homes are well-kept and crime is down from years ago. It’s still rough around the edges; 87 sex offenders live there, the second largest concentration of sex offenders in the city. But the working class is busy with full time jobs and that helps keep the peace.
Rosemary Follis, the owner of The Cave, says a healthy economy is also good for the guys on parole.
"One of the things, of course, Formula 1, has employed a lot of people to set it up and then during the deal and then to tear it down. And so, we’ve had a lot of jobs from there," she says. The day-labor sites around the area have her number on speed-dial. They often call her in the middle of the night to get workers for broken water mains or to man the third shift at a construction site. That's also kept the peace because the guys are busy and self-sufficient.
Still, parolees have to battle his or her own demons as they try to forge a new life for themselves. Keith Muegge says it’s not always easy. Muegge was released on parole on New Year’s and Powers just got him a job. But he still has to wear an ankle bracelet for 18 years and has to pay a monthly fee for his parole.
The hard part is dealing with the day-to-day things, like getting an ID. Many of the parolees don’t have a birth certificate so they struggle to get an ID. To complicate matters, in order to get a birth certificate, they need an ID. Powers and her non-profit can help with that, but they can't always provide emotional and psychiatric help these men need, like Muegge, who is still coping with the death of his wife.
"I don’t drank very often but when she died I didn’t handle it well," Muegge says. "I was wrong – I went out and got very, very drunk got in my truck went to go get a pack of cigarettes and got a DWI." It was his third DWI and the court gave me 25 years.
"I did seven years in prison and got out in January," says Muegge, who is dealing with his demons one day at a time, however cliche that might sound. If he succeeds, he’ll have paid his debt and be a truly free man in 18 years.
By then, Dove Springs is expected to change even more. Perhaps by then, The Cave will be completely gone. But not because neighbors kicked them out.
Rosemary Follis says it’s getting harder and harder to keep the place in an area that is up and coming when your tenants are a nonprofit, ex-cons and a state agency. She fears that as the community turns the corner, she’ll be priced out.