No Shelter Here: Austin Group Tries To Provide 'Restoration' From The Storm

Sep 11, 2017

When big storms hit, familiar relief organizations like the Red Cross step in to help people in need. But there’s one local group trying to break the mold when it comes to relief.

“If it were you and you lost everything, what would you want the world to do?” asked Fatima Mann, executive director of Counter Balance: ATX, a nonprofit she co-founded last year. “I would want the world to stop and help me. Straight up: Stop and help me. And I’m not going to lie to you, if I lost everything, I guarantee you the world would stop for me, because I have stopped my entire life for the world. I'm in law school, third year, in Baton Rouge. I’m not even supposed to be here.”

Just last week, her organization joined with several other nonprofits and — though they didn't realize it at the time — are looking to change the way emergencies are approached by big aid organizations.

Faith Presbyterian Church in South Austin is filled with donated food and supplies for Counter Balance: ATX.
Credit Martin do Nascimento/KUT

If it were the business world, it would be called a disruptive startup. In after-storm terminology, you'd be tempted to call it a shelter.

“It’s not a shelter," Mann said. "It’s a restoration center."

Whatever you call it, the group turned Faith Presbyterian Church on Oltorf into a place where those affected by storms can get what they need.

“Having a space in place where people can feel like humans, as they get the resources that they need in the long time that it takes," Mann said. “So, you know, then getting food, clothes, different supplies. We have FEMA here.”

She and the handful of people she likes to call captains are young and have an irrepressible urge to help others. They also want to help change what they see as a problem in bigger aid organizations.

“So Red Cross misses the humanity part,” she said. “Yeah, they can save you, great. But they don’t keep you warm. They don’t make you feel comforted.”

Mann says bigger groups haven’t established the same level of trust as groups like hers that have been in the trenches.

“FEMA, Red Cross, they show up when things happen,” she said. “Community organizations, we’re here all the time, every day, because we have to be, because the community is still here.”

And what they created was a place where Harvey evacuees can come and get a meal, personal items, food, help with FEMA applications, first aid and community.

“I want culturally appropriate spaces for them. I want them to see people that look like them," she said.

After Harvey’s second landfall over Port Arthur and Beaumont, the group even dispatched rescues.

Ja’Corey Odu runs an Austin nonprofit called Guardians Gate. Just a few weeks ago, he was coordinating with Counter Balance for a youth basketball tournament.

As floodwaters filled Port Arthur, a town where he had roots and relatives, he sprang into action to help get them out – by nearly any means.

Ja'Corey Odu's group Guardians Gate sprang into action when Port Arthur was flooding to help residents get to safety.
Credit Martin do Nascimento/KUT

“If I literally showed you the messages in my phone, you would have thought they were made-up screenshots, like dispatched planes and Chinook helicopters for med-evac, buses and vans,” Odu said.

Odu has invested his time, his money – and money he doesn’t have – to pull people from the water. He’s tapped every relationship he could – including a cousin in Port Arthur politics – to help get as many residents out who wanted to leave.

Jaylyn Harris and her husband, Jarvis Hunter, of Beaumont, heard about the pickups on Facebook.

“We sent Ja’Corey our address and five minutes later, the van was at our house ready to pick us up,” she said. “They picked me, my husband and my son up with everything that we had, well not everything, but the stuff that we had on us. They picked us up with all our stuff and we were on our way.”

And once they got to Austin, Harris and Hunter felt immediately at home.

“Loving every minute of it,” Hunter said.

“People are loving and welcoming,” Harris said. “They accept you for who you are. They don’t want you to change for no one. They are awesome. It’s a shame to say that you have to come all the way to Austin to be accepted like family. That’s what we consider them: family. We didn’t have that in Beaumont.”

And they claim everyone who came to the center got a bed to rest in.

“Everyone who gets here gets a hotel room or an Airbnb,” said Dawn Burnside, who organized the booking of rooms for Counter Balance. “No one sleeps on cots. So, if you’re coming through here, you get a place to stay for your children to sleep on a bed to and a shower.

They are all paid for either with FEMA assistance or donations. But a large portion is paid out of pocket by Burnside, Mann, Odu and the other folks who are putting this together. And during the day, this restoration center is a place they can come together.

“What I love about this space is that it literally has this backyard barbecue, kinda hangout, chill vibe,”  Mann said. “And it is; that’s exactly what we do.”

"It's a shame to say that you have to come all the way to Austin to get treated like family."

That's not to say all of this went without a hitch. Counter Balance personnel were constantly questioned by local officials about whether they were doing things through the appropriate channels. Mann was detained briefly by police in Southeast Texas because she refused to turn around a bus filled with people who wanted to leave.

Local governments and bigger aid organizations have been slow to recognize the collective because it is breaking some disaster response conventions.

And Counter Balance's agreements with the church and others within the collective of nonprofits are more along the lines of a handshake than anything formal.

Donations are a help, but there is no budget plan for this operation. It is helping folks as they need it. It has developed and re-developed the plan as it's gone along – making improvements as it goes.

As of Sunday, Counter Balance had moved most of its operations to 12th and Chicon. And while it is maintaining meals at Faith, it's now looking to take what it’s learned in a little more than a week and apply it to a bigger goal: The group is opening similar centers in Dallas and Port Arthur.

It is hoping to open more in Houston and Baytown, and is already helping coordinate a warehouse for donations in Brazoria County, south of Houston – all done through prism of racial and social justice.

“What we do is we make sure that our communities are taken care of in natural disasters, [and] more likely than not, African-Americans die at a higher rate, they’re left impoverished at a higher rate, which means there are cracks in the system somewhere,” Mann said

Mann said she would like the centers to be self-sustaining before she returns to law school. Classes at Southern University Law Center began last week.