Widening the Circle of Hope

By Susan Bean Aycock

Local organizations launch major projects to address homelessness

Homelessness costs.

It costs money: For the state, county and city to provide services covering the unhoused. Police and sheriff’s departments, hospitals and county jails have increased costs that are ultimately passed on to taxpayers, and social service organizations are strained caring for an increasing under-resourced population. The estimated cost of community services of each person living on the street is $39,000 a year, according to the City of Waco.

It costs time: Hiring and training qualified professionals — filling in gaps with volunteers — who take the complicated puzzle pieces of marginal living and work to find solutions for those who need assistance.

It costs dignity: Perhaps most devastating of all is the loss of dignity that being unhoused costs those experiencing it, losing not only shelter and resources, but risking being stigmitized and stereotyped by those very losses.

Two major organizations in Waco — Mission Waco|Mission World and The Salvation Army — have plans underway to construct new facilities that will provide more services for the unhoused in Waco. Both Mission Waco’s and The Salvation Army’s planned projects include not only shelter for those experiencing homelessness, but necessary wrap-around services in physical and mental health care, veterans’ or other social services, job placements and more.

Both organizations offer multiple programs that tackle the problem of homelessness at its root: lack of affordable housing, often compounded by mental health and addiction issues. And with their new projects, both organizations are also tackling the often-unidentified factor of isolation, tying all of the pieces of their projects together with the strong bond of community.

“I really do think that one of the single leading causes of homelessness is a profound catastrophic loss of family and community,” said John Calaway, executive director of Mission Waco|Mission World. “It makes all the difference in the world when we move our thinking from asking ‘What’s wrong with this person?’ to ‘What happened to this person?’”

Mission Waco’s Creekside Community Village is almost to the groundbreaking stage as a comprehensive tiny-home community with supportive services that aims to provide housing for formerly homeless individuals. The plan for the 68-acre property includes community buildings and spaces, individual housing units and 35 acres of green space, and is located on University Parks Drive just outside the city limits. It’s designed to be a “transformative community, combining permanent supportive housing with life-giving community engagement,” according to the project prospectus. Groundbreaking for Phase I is slated to begin by early summer this year.

“Everything contributes to the desperate situation of people who end up becoming homeless,” said Major Jim Taylor, co-commander of the Waco/McLennan County Salvation Army along with his wife, Major April Taylor; both are ordained pastors of the Salvation Army Church. “Maybe they develop a catastrophic illness and have no insurance, then they can’t work, and things get desperate very quickly. Seventy-five to 100 years ago, most of the homeless were single men. Now the majority are families.”

The Waco/McLennan County Salvation Army is in the fund-raising phase of a new comprehensive “one stop” campus on already purchased property on LaSalle Avenue. The new center will consolidate its services currently spread around the city, with the exception of the thrift store on Waco Drive. The campus will provide expanded emergency housing, particularly looking towards a critical need for family housing, and offer consolidated Salvation Army social services on-site. Its capital campaign fund, Building Hope, just launched in March and groundbreaking is scheduled to begin in 2025.

“There’s just not enough affordable housing for families,” said Salvation Army Maj. April Taylor. “One of the major challenges is the economy and instability of income — people just can’t afford what they used to. Costs become out of reach financially for many people. With more affordable housing, we wouldn’t have the number of people we see now living with a hotel as their permanent address.”

Mission Waco’s Creekside Community Development

Mission Waco’s 68-acre new Creekside Community Village will be located at 3810 University Parks Drive, just outside the Waco city limit. At full build-out, it will include nearly 300 homes for people experiencing homelessness, along with community buildings and green space. Groundbreaking is slated for early summer and residents could move into Creekside as soon as the first phase of homes is completed.

According to Mission Waco Executive Director John Calaway, it will feature four different models of tiny homes for the unhoused, ranging from 200 to 400 square feet. Security for the development will include perimeter fencing, a gated front entrance and on-site personnel. Ideally, he said, there will also be a component providing public transportation to and from downtown Waco.

Altogether, the development will feature 346 homes for the formerly unhoused: 168 unplumbed microhomes, 122 units with partial plumbing and six family bungalow-style homes. The 50 top-tier “park model” homes — representing approximately 20% of the development — will be available for purchase by “missional” residents who are not formerly homeless, but who choose to live in the community with those who are.

“We hope that the middle class in Waco has the opportunity to create community and build relationships with people who don’t look, think or act like them,” said Calaway.

Details on specific rental prices will be rolled out closer to move-in, said Calaway, though he said it will be affordable, with units only a few hundred dollars a month. Applicants must have been homeless within the last year or have been staying at a low-income motel within McLennan County. There is no limit to the time that residents can stay at Creekside, said Calaway, as long as they are paying rent.

“There will be several resources at Creekside,” said Calaway. “Its community aspect is a resource in itself in providing human-to-human interaction. Housing combined with supportive services, consistently applied, is a major resource. Partnership is key, and we have medical and behavioral health providers — separate entitities from Mission Waco — at the table at this developmental stage to create an ideal framework for continuing support to residents.”

The microhomes (12 by 16 feet of living space with a 6-foot porch) are designed to provide a safe sleeping space for those just coming out of shelters or off the street. The reason to include unplumbed units, said Calaway, is that they cost half that of partially plumbed ones and can offer a cheaper rental rate, plus offer control of cleanliness and sanitation.

Texas Best Buildings, a manufacturer of portable buildings based in McGregor, built and donated the microhome prototype that was unveiled at Mission Waco’s annual banquet March 28 at the Extraco Center.

“Dusty Kirk [chief village officer for Creekside] visited our factory several times during the construction process and provided valuable guidance and insight to making this project a success,” said company owner Dave Selman. “The prototype had to be mobile to be taken to the Extraco Center, but it shows what will be built to be lived in on-site at Creekside. I was motivated to contribute to the project to give back to our community — to have a chance to be part of something larger. Having a safe place to stay is a step for someone getting acclimated back into society from sleeping on the street, and gives them hope for something good in their lives.”

In addition to the smallest unplumbed units, another 122 housing units, double the size of the microhomes, will be partially plumbed with a sink and toilet. Residents in the unplumbed or partially plumbed homes will have access to toilets and showers in private restrooms grouped in a central location, along with washers and dryers for laundry.

The development is intentionally designed to encourage community, often lacking for the under-resourced and a major contributing factor in the downward spiral that leads to their becoming unhoused. Phase I infrastructure includes a hospitality center providing space for gatherings, with offices that can accommodate meetings with service providers who partner with the development. It also includes centralized individual bathrooms with toilets and showers, a community kitchen, a maintenance building and a convenience store. Thirty-five of the property’s acreage will be reserved for green space and garden plots, along with room to raise small animals.

It’s been almost a year since Mission Waco closed on the property, whose development is based on Austin’s successful Community First! Village opened in 2015. According to Calaway, about $6.3 million has been raised to date — just over half of the $12 million needed to fund Phase I. Mission Waco will be seeking donors to make up the difference, and is encouraging churches, businesses and families to fund individual homes.

“The City of Waco made a contribution of $1 million, and Don Behringer [a local businessman and philanthropist who died in 2023] made significant seed gifts that are a major reason our vision is becoming reality,” said Calaway. “Those two donors allowed us to purchase the property and have money in the bank to start the project when the design work is finished.”

Mission Waco looked at property possibilities for about a year before choosing the site. It’s outside the city limits of Waco but still within its ETJ [extra-territorial jurisdiction, an unincorporated area contiguous to the corporate boundaries of a city]. That means there’s access to city utilities such as water and wastewater services, so the development doesn’t have to provide more expensive well and septic systems.

And anticipating potential questions about the development’s homeless population, he said, “We’ve had great conversations with potential donors and partners when we talk about the ‘who’ first when talking about the unhoused,” he said. “Yes, there are those with mental and behavioral issues and those who have self-medicated through substance abuse. But drugs and alcohol aren’t the problem; they’re the medication,” said Calaway.

“We want to practice radical acceptance, not overlooking addictive or negative behaviors, but accepting the unhoused as individuals who are all created in the image of God. We all have messy lives with some darkness in them, but when we recognize that across the board, it changes the equation. It’s not ‘us versus them’, but ‘we.’”

Calaway also noted several potential advantages in Creekside’s relative proximity to Baylor University: it aligns with the university’s Christian core values to help the poor — though he prefers the term “under-resourced” — and provides opportunity for volunteerism, academic internships and apprenticeships.

“Having a homeless population in Waco affects the health and wellbeing of the entire city, which means the health and wellbeing of every individual,” said Calaway. “Those struggling with homelessness have lower levels of health and wellbeing. Homelessness is also a financial issue that affects all taxpayers. If we are going to flourish as a city, we have to give every citizen in the city the opportunity to flourish.

And of the perhaps hidden root cause of homelessness, he said, “Isolation is one of the things greatly affecting mental and behavioral health and leads to addiction issues. One of my favorite quotes is from Mother Teresa: ‘The most terrible form of poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved’.”

Leading the Way

“In both the Old and New Testaments, God says that He loves the poor and oppressed — so God’s people should also love the marginalized,” said John Durham, lead pastor of Highland Baptist Church [HBC].

“It’s my understanding that HBC was the first church to make a financial gift to Creekside Community Village. We’ve had a long-standing ministerial partnership with Mission Waco. Jimmy Dorrell [Mission Waco co-founder and president emeritus] was the youth pastor here in the 70s. He continues to preach a prophetic vision of service in Waco, calling churches to action.

“HBC gave a gift of $145,000 to Creekside Community Village at the beginning of their fundraising campaign to have cash in hand to begin the project. Some of our church members have also stepped up to donate landscaping and construction services — that’s the Church stepping up with the gifts of the three T’s: time, talent and treasure.

“HBC foresees a continuing partnership with Creekside and their community. I would love for the churches of Waco to step up and be on the front line of this project.”

You can help Mission Waco reach their goal for Phase I by giving at their website at missionwaco.org/Creekside-community-development.

A New Salvation Army Campus

The Waco/McLennan County Salvation Army is consolidating its programs, which include emergency shelter for the homeless and wrap-around social programs, in a new “one-stop shop” for its services, in two buildings at 1324 LaSalle Ave.

According to a site plan by designated local architectural firm RBDR Architects, the property will eventually contain two buildings, the 29,000-square-foot Center of Hope and 15,000-square-foot Corps Community Center, along with parking, green space, a pavilion and playground. The Center of Hope will contain the Salvation Army’s emergency housing facilities and other social services, while the Corps Community Center will house administrative offices, a church and Sunday School classrooms and fellowship areas. Depending on the success of its fundraising campaign, Building Hope, the nonprofit hopes to break ground in 2025.

“By having everything on one campus, people can come to one place and we’ll be able to help them more efficiently,” said Maj. Jim Taylor. “The new center will be much more client-centric than organization-centric.”

The Salvation Army partnered with Baylor University’s School of Social Work in 2019, surveying partner agencies, local leaders and potential donors to help identify gaps in services for the homeless. The new Center of Hope will address the top three issues identified by that survey:

*Consolidate Salvation Army social services in the same place as housing for increased accessibility (only the Thrift Store on Waco Drive will not move to the new campus from the nonprofits other services scattered around the city).

*Provide a day center for the unhoused; currently there’s no such facility in Waco. The day center will include showers, laundry facilities and lockers and will be open 24/7.

*Increased housing for homeless families.

“We’re planning for the future by having more emergency housing for families and consolidated units, expecting that our homeless programs will continue to grow — that’s just a sad reality,” said Maj. April Taylor. “What we know is that people need housing and they need it now.”

The new center will increase emergency shelter from current capacity: single men’s beds from 20 to 24, single women’s beds from four to 16, and most critically, family apartments from three to 15.

“This is our attempt to address the huge gap in services for families,” said Maj. Jim Taylor. “In all, our housing capacity will go from 35 currently to about 100 people.”

The Center for Hope will also house the community kitchen to be transferred from Webster Avenue, serving daily meals to residents and other people in need of a hot meal. Classroom space will be available for educational classes such as GED, ESL or financial management instruction. Case workers in partner agencies [as yet to be identified through continuing conversations] can also meet with shelter residents for help with physical and mental health care issues.

“In addition to a $1 million gift from the City of Waco, The Salvation Army has contributed resources and fund sources as well as supportive grant funding to support the project — now we need the community to step up and top off our fundraising campaign,” said Major Jim Taylor. Approximately $12 million has been raised to date, with the remaining $8 million to be raised over the next three years.

Why this particular piece of land on LaSalle?

“After much prayer and searching, this is the property God identified for us,” said Maj. Jim Taylor. Asked if there have been any concerns about the facility being located so close to the Baylor University campus, he replied, “None. Mostly there have been positive comments about the location being close to the Veteran’s One Stop [2010 LaSalle Ave.], a location that serves our veterans’ community, and close to the proposed Mission Waco project of tiny homes [Creekside Community Village].”

Though some local business owners questioned the location when the Waco City Council approved zoning for the center in early 2022, Maj. Jim Taylor said those concerns have been resolved.

“The special permit that the Salvation Army received took care of concerns and questions at that time,” he said. “Since then, we have run into several business owners who voiced their positive support in the year or so since that City Council meeting, and we have not had any other concerns.”

Said Maj. Jim Taylor, “Homelessness is often the result of a crisis event that disrupts a person’s life and creates fear and desperation. When people have never experienced this type of crisis in family or relationships, it’s difficult to understand how quickly things spiral out of control.”

“There is no one face of homelessness,” said Maj. April Taylor. “It might be a neighbor or friend that you have no knowledge of how they are struggling to keep it together month to month. No one is exempt from the effects of unexpected loss of income. One of our number-one priorities is keeping dignity in the resources that we offer.

“When you’re on the street, you feel that people are looking at you and judging you because you don’t have any place to be. It’s important for us in the Salvation Army not to turn a blind eye. We see these people in their suffering and we let them know that we see them and offer a hand of hope.