It’s lunchtime on a scorching Wednesday at the intersection of Second Avenue and Louisiana. Across the street is San Jacinto Park, the only oasis of green in an urban grid of asphalt and small homes. One after the other, senior citizens arrive at Acts Community Resource Center’s nondescript headquarters. They’re on foot – a high percentage of residents in this neighborhood don’t own a car – and most are sweating by the time they step into the air-conditioned building.
A diminutive woman greets them with a warm hug. Everyone calls her “Cha Cha,” and though a volunteer, she’s the busiest person inside. Self-assured and 74 years old, Cha Cha recognizes everyone by name, bustling from sign-in desk to table as she oversees the details of this free daily lunch for senior adults.
An elderly Caucasian couple arrives, engages in a short conversation with Cha Cha, and moves through the short food line. A 63-year-old woman named Patsy, who lives a few blocks away on Independence Street, serves them a hot meal of chicken, potatoes and vegetables. The couple sits at a table near an African-American man with a walker, a Hispanic woman, and a few others.
Some of them have known each other for years. Others are just getting to know each other, one benefit of this community meal. They talk about their neighborhood. They tell stories. Some are positive, about using a bicycle pump to help air up a neighbor’s flat tire last week. Others are whispered stories, including gossip about the shooting that took place at the northern end of the park in mid-June, which took the life of a 19-year-old. Some houses have fresh bullet holes, they say. Some families won’t let their kids out after dark. Not anymore.
The food is healthy and delicious, prepared by the Elizabeth Jane Bivins Culinary Center, which donates and delivers this meal every weekday. At least two dozen seniors are dining at Acts Community today. The Senior Lunch Program is a new outreach of the nonprofit organization, which began offering it in early June. More and more of San Jacinto’s senior citizens discover it every week – and they need it. Living on a fixed income of around $600 a month, Cha Cha had stopped eating meat before the Senior Lunch Program began. “I couldn’t afford it,” she says.
As the meal begins to wind down, Cha Cha relaxes and takes a seat. “If you’ll notice, only the seniors are waiting on seniors,” she says. “We’re greeting them. We’re cleaning up. It’s self-sufficient. That gives us hope that we are no longer invisible. We’ve been the invisible generation too long.” She points across the room to Chad Conner, the executive director of Acts Community. “He has given us hope. That’s the biggest four-letter word in this area: Hope.”
If Cha Cha knows hope today, it’s only because she knew invisibility two years ago. She’s lived in the San Jacinto neighborhood for all but a few of the past 30 years. Only two years ago, she was sitting outside her tiny, 240-square-foot home on Bellevue Street when Conner arrived at the house next door. He was delivering bread to Cha Cha’s neighbors. The neighbors weren’t home, so Conner and Cha Cha began talking. He told her about Acts Community Resource Center a few blocks away. She asked if he ever needed volunteers. Conner said yes.
Since that day, Cha Cha has literally been at Acts every time the doors open. “I haven’t missed a shift since,” she says. She helps Conner administer the organization’s food pantry, where local residents can buy groceries by spending credits they’ve earned from volunteering. She guides women to a clothing closet where they receive quality used clothing to wear during job interviews. She helps tend the small community garden out back, and leads a group of 40 women who meet every month to support each other, pick up trash, and brainstorm ways to improve the neighborhood.
Cha-Cha says Acts has given her a purpose and a place to belong. She leans in, her voice dropping to a whisper, and tells another part of her story. The day she met Conner was almost Cha Cha’s last. “I had been saving my pills because that night I was going to kill myself,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. “I was so desperately lonely, with no one to talk to. You just have no idea.”
Patsy sits down with a plate of her own, after having served everyone else. She has lived in the neighborhood since 1992, along with her two young adult sons. One is mentally challenged. The other just lost his job. Before the lunch program, Patsy says she “was lucky to get a hot dog and a Coke” every other day from the Toot’n Totum at Third Avenue and Western Street. The daily meal – her only food for the day – allows her to save her food stamps in order to help feed her sons.
Though Patsy first encountered Acts while coming to pick up free groceries, she soon began volunteering. “It makes me feel better about it,” she says of the resources Acts provides her and her family. “I feel like I belong to this.”
Conner says that’s the point. He grew up in Amarillo only to move to Las Vegas in his early 20s, where he played poker, tended bar, got addicted to cocaine and became an alcoholic. Now seven years sober, he founded Acts Community in 2011 after realizing that local organizations did a great job reaching out to the homeless but often neglected those teetering on the edge of homelessness – like many in the poverty-stricken San Jacinto area. “I wanted to build relationships in this neighborhood and be there every day and help people dig out of whatever it was that was holding them back,” he says.
He doesn’t just want to hand hungry families a bag of food, but to empower them to change not only their own lives, but also their community. That’s why volunteering is connected to the groceries, meals, and clothing Acts Community provides. “I don’t want to bring in someone to serve them,” he says. “I want the neighborhood running the community center. I want to get the neighborhood involved in its transformation.”
Rich History, Promising Future Transformation. That’s a word you’ll hear often in the San Jacinto area, from the shop owners on Sixth Street to the nonprofits assisting people like Patsy and Cha Cha. Over the past few years, this historic neighborhood has become Amarillo’s ground-zero for community outreach.
San Jacinto Heights is as iconic a neighborhood as Amarillo has ever known. A new development on the northwest outskirts of the city when Route 66 was established in 1926, San Jacinto flourished thanks to the nation’s iconic “Mother Road.” Bisecting the area down Sixth Street, it delivered countless travelers, gas stations, restaurants, and other new businesses to San Jacinto. It also brought residents, who snatched up lots and built homes throughout the area between Georgia and Western Streets.
“It’s historic Amarillo,” says Brady Clark, a longtime pastor and social entrepreneur. He’s the co-founder and president of an independent community development nonprofit called Square Mile Industries, which focuses on coordinating outreach and resources in the San Jacinto area. Square Mile partners with churches, religious nonprofits, and secular agencies to bring about long-term change in the neighborhood. “The roots of Amarillo run deep, and the memory of when it was thriving is still a big part of people’s lives,” Clark says. He has a personal connection to the area. “My grandfather was born on a kitchen table at Sixth and Tennessee. I lived there as a rowdy teenager. It was the only place in town that would rent to a 16-year-old, green-haired punk rocker.”
Most Amarilloans’ experience of San Jacinto is limited to the bars and shops of Sixth Street. Clark says that one street doesn’t tell the whole story. “San Jacinto is incredibly diverse and incredibly transient. It’s one of the worst neighborhoods in terms of crime because of those reasons,” he explains (see sidebar). “Besides Sixth Street and a few other pockets, it’s been ignored for a long time.” Regardless, he says, “we love this neighborhood. We see the potential for it to thrive and flourish.”
That assessment resonates with Conner. “The makeup of the neighborhood is not a bunch of criminals. That’s the reputation that it gets,” he says. “But the reality is there are kids and people who have been living here for 50 years. The majority are trying the hardest they can but just aren’t quite making it. Headlines on the news blind you to the fact that the majority are fantastic people. Circumstances have put them in a tight spot and they’re just trying to survive.”
Will Esler, the local missions coordinator at First Presbyterian Church, believes San Jacinto has reached an exciting but complicated place in its history. Pouring money into the neighborhood to gentrify it, like other cities have done with historic areas, isn’t the answer. “You could make the houses big and nice and fancy and [the current residents] would be pushed out,” he says. They’re not looking to leave. “They want to own their home. They want to live in a nice neighborhood, but there’s literally no way they can do it.”
One house at a time, Conner and Acts are working to change that, recruiting youth groups and other volunteers to refresh nearly three dozen dilapidated houses with new coats of paint. “When there’s no pride in [a neighborhood], people don’t have any reason to fight drugs or crime,” he says. A minor external improvement like paint can become a catalyst for other transformations.
“As the worst house on the block becomes the best one, the neighbor is now keeping up with that. Throughout an entire block, you see changes in the appearance of everyone’s house,” he explains. “There’s pride in the neighborhood again. People don’t sit on their hands and watch as the neighborhood falls apart.”
It’s not just Acts Community Resource Center. Esler’s church, along with Generation Next Worship Center on Sixth Street and other local agencies, has partnered with Square Mile to equip San Jacinto’s residents to restore their neighborhood. “Fifteen to 20 years down the road, this square mile is going to look different. It’s not all about what we are doing,” he says. “It’s about trying to bring people together.”
Healing the City One thing that has brought those people together over the past year is free health care. Every Monday night, on the sidewalk next to Tennessee Street south of Generation Next Worship Center, up to 100 San Jacinto residents line up for treatment at a free, four-room medical clinic called Heal the City. These patients include elderly adults with arthritis or diabetes, children with ear infections, and parents needing dental care or eyeglasses. Almost all are uninsured. Though the clinic doesn’t open until 4 p.m. – when its medical volunteers finish up their paid work elsewhere in Amarillo – some begin lining up for treatment hours before it opens.
“For most families in southwest Amarillo, if a child gets sick, one of the two parents will take off [from work] and call a pediatrician,” explains internist Dr. Alan Keister, who founded Heal the City in late 2014. “They make an appointment and have resources to get transportation to the office and pay for the visit and medications.”
That’s not how it works for San Jacinto’s low-income residents. Few have jobs flexible enough to allow them time off for a sick child. Almost none have a personal pediatrician or know a general practitioner. Instead, says Keister, those who have access to a car “wait until whoever has the transportation gets off work.” Then they go straight to the Emergency Room at Northwest Texas Hospital, which provides indigent care and is accessible by bus. Because they understand so little about navigating the modern health care system, an unnecessary trip to the ER is all they know to do.
“They go to the ER with something that could easily be seen in the outpatient realm. They’ll wait several hours and if there’s gas in the car and money left, they’ll go get the antibiotic and then wait until the next crisis,” says Keister. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Chelsea Stevens, the clinical director at Heal the City and its only full-time employee, says those ER visits can cost taxpayers at least $2,500. “Our goal is to take that away from the ER, so our community isn’t eating that [cost],” she says.
After leading medical mission trips outside the United States, Keister began investigating ways to bring that same medical care to disadvantaged families in Amarillo. In 2013, he organized health fairs at several local elementary schools. At the first couple of screenings, a few dozen parents and kids showed up. Then came the health fair at San Jacinto Elementary School.
“We had 500 people show up in a matter of two hours,” says Chelsea Stevens. The response overwhelmed Keister and his volunteers. “[San Jacinto] had a higher level of need for care and a higher density of uninsured people in the neighborhood,” he says.
After exploring a relationship with Acts Community’s location across from the park, Keister discovered that many residents were hesitant to visit the park at night. They considered Sixth Street much safer. Keister met with Pastor Tommy Fulgham of Generation Next, a dynamic church on Sixth Street, and soon the fledgling organization was turning an old house behind the church into a medical clinic and pharmacy. Today, Heal the City relies upon a volunteer army and financial support from several local foundations. It’s close to expanding, too. Thanks to an anonymous donor, the organization has purchased and is remodeling the former Midtown YMCA, a 20,000-square-foot facility a block away on South Carolina Street.
Apart from the gymnasium – which remains intact – most of the building is being gutted and repurposed to provide a substantial upgrade from Heal the City’s existing 1,400-square-foot location. The new south end will transform into a large medical clinic. Heal the City has filled in the indoor swimming pool at the Y and is turning the north side of the building into a wellness center with fitness rooms, a walking track, a classroom, and a community kitchen. The holistic approach to health is an important part of the organization’s strategy. “It’s a place [for residents] to get more health care resources and education to move forward with their health care,” Keister says. He envisions writing a prescription for diabetes medication in the clinic side, then directing the patient to the wellness center for exercise. “I can also say ‘Log X-number of miles on the track,’” he says.
Before it was the Midtown Y, the building was known as the Amarillo Community Center. Heal the City hopes to return it to those roots. “We are trying to meet medical needs and spiritual needs and empower people to do things that we were taught every day to do, like writing a job application,” says Stevens. They’re also helping restore dignity. “So many patients will say, ‘Thank you for making eye contact with me.’ They will walk all over that neighborhood to come. It’s not always for wellness. It’s for community.”
Gardens in a Desert If San Jacinto residents are willing to walk several blocks for medical treatment, it’s because many of them walk everywhere, for everything. “You’d be surprised how many people here have no internet, no phone, no transportation,” says Conner. “The challenges here aren’t just a lack of money.”
He identifies San Jacinto as a “food desert,” an urban area where fresh or nutritious food is largely unavailable. Other than Toot’n Totum, there are no groceries available within a reasonable walking distance from San Jacinto Park. The markets and carnicerias on Amarillo Boulevard are at least three miles away. United Market Street on Georgia is 2.3 miles away – an hour’s walk. “The closest one is the United on Gem Lake Road,” Conner says. At just under two miles away, it would take someone like Patsy around 45 minutes to get there.
“What if it’s raining? What if it’s 100 degrees outside?” he asks. “Either way, you can’t buy much, because you’re 70 years old and have to carry it home with you.”
That’s why Acts Community Resource Center has turned part of its property into a dozen raised garden beds, each one maintained by a different family or individual. Conner and his volunteers are helping nearby residents raise lettuce, tomatoes, and squash so they’ll have fresh food. His dream is to find a property owner on every block to donate space in their yards for the same purpose.
A few blocks away, at the 7th Street Garden of Hope, the idea of a community garden has flourished like a tomato plant in the late-summer Panhandle heat. The garden is a collaborative effort of High Plains Food Bank and Patsy’s Place Transitional Home, a residence for women who have recently been released from incarceration. Now in its second summer, the garden is an oasis of green in this urban landscape. Its 49 raised beds include one for each woman participating in the ministry’s faith-based aftercare program, along with 10 gardens being tended by people who live nearby. Several beds have been designated “community beds.” Their produce is distributed to the community or the High Plains Food Bank.
Patsy’s Place helps women restart their lives after finishing a prison term. The highly structured program offers financial classes, job preparation, and skill-building during a crucial time in these women’s lives. Executive Director April Riggs says the gardens provide a type of therapy during what can be a difficult transition.
“For a woman who’s just come out of incarceration, you get the ownership of being able to choose what you want and take care of it and reap the benefits,” Riggs says. Some women plant vegetables like chard, radishes or okra. Others plant flowers. Taking responsibility for a living thing is an important part of the process, Riggs says. So is the solitude, the time in a peaceful setting, and the life skills that come from gardening and learning to cook fresh vegetables.
“The garden was my respite,” says Brandy Neasbitt, who graduated from Patsy’s Place several months ago following a three-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance. “It’s where I went to get away from everything. Every night, I was out watering or pulling weeds.” She grew tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, cucumbers, squash, and cantaloupes in her plot. “It gives you a sense of accomplishment to go from nothing but dirt to something you can eat,” says Neasbitt, who now works full-time for a professional cleaning and restoration service.
Aquiras Beaman entered Patsy’s Place last October after her release from the Randall County jail on drug-related charges. “It was the only way I knew to save myself and get help,” the 45-year-old says. “This was the best choice I’ve made in my life.” She maintains her own plot at the 7th Street Gardens, and also spends time tending the beds designated for people in the neighborhood. “The garden is awesome. It’s my way of giving back to the community and Patsy’s Place.” Beaman has enjoyed learning to cook the different types of produce she grew, including a bulb-like vegetable called kohlrabi. “Nobody knew what it was. I had never grown it but I cooked it myself.”
Beaman describes the garden as a spiritual place. “I use it for my meditation time, to go out and speak with the Lord. When you walk out there and look in my garden and see little tomatoes growing and my little tree, it’s a great feeling,” she says. “I just got done picking all my radishes. It’s wonderful to see how the Lord will grow something from a seed.”
Community Cooperation Though these community gardens are making small advances in diminishing the San Jacinto food desert, Brady Clark and Will Esler have a larger solution in mind. They’re planning a Farmer’s Market and Co-op Grocery Store near the new Heal the City facilities, operated under the umbrella of Square Mile Industries. Though still in the planning and fundraising stages, they envision selling fresh, healthy food at prices people can afford.
In addition to selling produce grown in the neighborhood, they intend to model the store after successful startups like Carver Neighborhood Market in south Atlanta. “Using grants, they’ll drop the price of a product down low,” Esler says of Carver, which has become a model for similar low-income neighborhoods nationwide. “Spinach will be on special for the week at a tenth of the price, and we’ll bring in a chef to educate the community and show them how to cook it. It gives them the chance to try things they wouldn’t try otherwise.”
Though still a year from becoming a reality, Clark believes the market will meet needs beyond nutrition. “It provides jobs. It’s an avenue of training. It brings in a certain set of life skills and opportunities for people to become more economically self-sufficient,” he says.
Esler envisions the concept working hand-in-hand with Heal the City. “One of the biggest factors in whether someone is going to develop diabetes is their diet,” he says. He imagines Dr. Keister prescribing a dietary change for a patient who needs to eat healthier foods. “They’ll take that prescription to the store and they’ll get X amount off [their purchase]. They’ll be shown the things they can eat. ‘We’re having a cooking class tonight. Why don’t you come find some ways to cook this?’”
Right now, Clark’s organization is focused only on San Jacinto, where the market will meet an obvious need when it eventually opens. But Square Mile’s vision isn’t limited to the area around Sixth Street. “It seemed like a natural fit to invest in this community and develop a solid model,” he says. In the future, he hopes to apply that model to other low-income communities in Amarillo. San Jacinto isn’t the only struggling section of the city.
“The problem with Amarillo’s poor neighborhoods, our old neighborhoods, is that we go and build new neighborhoods. We put resources in new neighborhoods and tend to forget about the old ones,” says Clark. “We see a lot of positive things coming from San Jacinto and similar neighborhoods, but we don’t see a lot of investment to help them develop it.”
No longer forgotten, San Jacinto’s investment ultimately has to come from the inside out – from its people – rather than from the outside in. It takes a coordinated effort to make this happen, one led by organizations like Acts Community and Heal the City. “Our vision is to bring the right agencies and partners in place to fill those gaps. No one agency, no one ministry, no one organization can deal with this,” Clark says. “It’s too big.”
Despite the uphill battle, those organizations are slowly chipping away at the rust that had built up on a once-shining historical neighborhood. With meals and medicine and gardens and community pride, San Jacinto is changing from the inside.
“We’re slowly pushing those druggies out and taking our neighborhood back,” says Cha Cha. She credits Chad Conner for enabling her women’s group to take San Jacinto’s revolution into their own hands. “It’s a powerful feeling to know that we can get out here and make a difference in one life at a time. We can make a neighborhood change.”
All it took was a little hope.
Good Neighbors: Businesses Giving Back
Every year on its “birthday,” in the middle of August, Sixth Street coffee shop The 806 hosts a fundraiser for the students of San Jacinto Elementary. The business opens a silent art auction, encourages customers to bring in supplies and cash donations, and administers an Indiegogo online giving campaign. Alongside a monetary donation from the coffee shop itself, owner Jason Barrett then coordinates with the school to determine exactly what supplies are needed. “Then I get the list and I go shopping,” Barrett says.
He and The 806 also recently helped raise money, purchase supplies, and recruit teachers for the San Jacinto Summer Art Camp, which has taken place for local kids four days a week at Acts Community Resource Center. “I personally think all local businesses should be involved in supporting their community, especially the neighborhoods they’re in,” he says. “It’s a big thing. It’s always been one of our main goals at The 806.”
Barrett is working closely with other businesses in the historic district to get them involved as well. “We’re in the process of starting a new Sixth Street Association that will not only improve Sixth Street itself, but will also involve Chad [Conner] at Acts and Heal the City to improve our neighborhood,” says Barnett, who has lived in San Jacinto for the past six years.
He says a number of nearby businesses are on the same page as The 806, and are willing to do everything possible to help their neighbors north and south of Sixth Street. “We’re doing our best to bring the community and the businesses together,” he says. “This is the most unique area in town. It’s like a microcosm of Amarillo right here in one old, historic neighborhood.”
Is Crime on the Rise in San Jacinto?
San Jacinto residents are quick to mention an uptick in crime in the area. Do the statistics corroborate this impression?
Sgt. Brent Barbee of the Amarillo Police Department cautions that anecdotal accounts of crime increasing in any neighborhood may be little more than confirmation bias – the tendency to overvalue information that supports a preexisting idea. High-profile crimes in a public place, like the shooting in San Jacinto Park in June, can fuel those perceptions.
However, the stats do bear out that impression, at least for the first half of 2016. “From looking at a very short time period, this year to last, I can see a noticeable increase in activity,” says Barbee. While it’s difficult to localize crime rates to one neighborhood or another, total calls for police service in San Jacinto and the number of police reports generated from those calls were higher for the first half of July 2016, compared to rates for the previous two years.
Barbee warns that those numbers shouldn’t necessarily predict a trend for the rest of 2016. APD officers frequently patrol the San Jacinto area and have built relationships within the community, which may impact calls for service. “The increased presence of officers in an area can actually increase crime numbers, as more officers make more contacts and discover more crimes, which drives up report numbers,” he explains.
Furthermore, increased statistics may often be skewed because of one particularly active group or individual – a busy burglary suspect, for instance – and shouldn’t reflect on the neighborhood as a whole. Though low-income areas like San Jacinto tend to suffer disproportionately from the social problems connected to crime, it’s an excessively complex issue. Economists and sociologists who spend years researching crime don’t always agree on what causes it. Even so, “many people live and grow up in ‘low-income’ areas, but don’t contribute to the crime rate,” Barbee says.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.