With Dignity for All

By Susan Bean Aycock

Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition coordinates resources for a marginalized clientele with an even more valuable component: respect for every individual it serves

A multi-layered issue like homelessness requires a multi-layered solution – and that’s where the Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition (HOTHC) comes in. Collaboratively organizing resources and services, it addresses immediate needs such as affordable housing, food, medical concerns, mental health issues and addiction recovery, all while dealing with the elephant in the room: the social stigma that still surrounds people experiencing homelessness.

Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock spoke with several HOTHC board members to discuss the root causes of homelessness, the challenges of allocating limited funds and collaborating strategically to make the greatest difference to as many people as possible. Each board member has a full-time job within an organization related to homeless services, which translates into a specific expertise in the Coalition in one of the many areas that contribute to the complex social issue.

Homeless Coalition community partners include the Salvation Army; Waco ISD; City of Waco; The Cove; VA Central Texas Health Care; Animal Birth Control Clinic; The Hangar; Endeavors; Caritas; Mission Waco|Mission World; Prosper Waco; Central Texas Youth Services; Communities in Schools; and the Heart of Texas Behavioral Health Network.

Bridging the Gaps

“People don’t choose to be homeless,” said Jerrod Clark, who is the sheltered homeless expert for HOTHC and serves as director of Mission Waco|Mission World’s Meyer Center, offering comprehensive services to low-income families and those experiencing homelessness. “A child has never answered the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ with ‘I want to be homeless, disabled, malnourished, unemployed, underemployed, illiterate or uneducated.’”

Formed in the late 90s as a coalition for homeless service providers, HOTHC received 501c3 tax-exempt status in 2004 and now serves as the lead organization to provide a “Continuum of Care” for the central Texas region that includes McLennan, Bosque, Falls, Freestone, Hill and Limestone counties. A Continuum of Care (CoC) is a group of organizations which receive funding from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with the Homeless Coalition being the collaborative applicant for competitive HUD grants.

“The [Homeless] Coalition steps in where government can’t keep up with need, and organizes services to help bridge the gap,” said Shannon Eckley, HOTHC board chair since January 1 and its chronic homelessness expert. By day, she serves as CEO for Throwing Aces, a privately funded homeless advocacy agency she founded two years ago. (“The name comes from a presenter at a conference I attended who used the term ‘throwing aces,’” she said. “When you want to love people well, it’s a little like playing cards: you start by putting your aces down first, showing love. All the other cards are ways to demonstrate how you can love, but you have to play the ace first. In case management, all support services go on top of that ace.”) We’re realistic knowing what barriers clients face but pursue every available opportunity to find solutions. One way we can do that effectively is to operate as a coalition, working together to share resources and fill the gaps.” Major gap occurs right away in just identifying potential clients before even thinking about providing services. “The encampment ban law, House Bill 1925, which went into effect in September 2021, legislates that people aren’t allowed to camp on public property, and that has affected our ability to count people because they move around more,” said Eckley. “We used to know where the campsites were and even who lived there most of the time.

Now they’re moving around all the time to keep from being cited, and it’s become a big issue for us to find them. After we identify them, the information goes to HUD and that’s how we get funding, then we follow up and connect them to services. COVID impacted a lot of things, and we see such thinner margins between barely making it and being on the street.”

The Root Causes of Homelessness and Its Many Faces

Because the roots of homelessness are so varied and interwoven, the HOTHC uses its collaborative structure to tailor services for each individual who shows up on their radar. “Our response depends on the person and what their immediate needs might be,” said Eckley. “They may need to get an ID to be able to receive further services, or may need transportation from a campsite to a shelter, or transportation to a health facility. They may need food and water or hygiene items. If they’re in a campsite and exhibit mental health issues, the [Heart of Texas] Behavioral Health Network has a mobile crisis outreach team that we can call. I know that with my own homeless outreach organization, Throwing Aces, upwards of 80% of my clients are dealing with mental health concerns. Homelessness in itself is traumatic; it’s not a normal way to live. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, if your campsite will be raided or where your safety is, there’s no way to have a sense of calm. Our community partners work together really well on issues like housing, crisis intervention, client advocacy and case management; we all have our different roles.” Karisa Garner, program manager of homeless services for the Heart of Texas Behavioral Network and the Coalition’s behavioral health expert, emphasized the role of mental health issues in homelessness. “Mental health challenges are recognized as not only a contributing factor to initial homelessness, but as perpetuating the cycle of continued and chronic homelessness,” she said. “Experiencing homelessness in itself can be traumatic, which can contribute to mental health concerns that may or may not already be present. This can create a cycle that, for those already in vulnerable positions, can be impossible to break without access to care and support. For Texans experiencing both
mental health issues and homelessness, access to care is nearly non-existent.”

Besides those with mental health issues, there are other sub-populations within the homelessness spectrum with specific needs, such as veterans and youth. Mike Ormsby, homeless outreach social worker for the Doris Miller VA Medical Center, serves as HOTHC representative for veterans’ service agencies. “A primary challenge unique to veterans is coping with military experiences and working to navigate civilian life with experiences that are different from others who weren’t in the military,” he said. “For some, that means difficulty maintaining employment, self-medicating to manage their symptoms or difficulty maintaining relationships. We’ve been so thankful for the work of HOTBHN [Heart of Texas Behavioral Health Network] to develop the Veterans One Stop as a place of support and networking specifically for veterans in our community.” (Wacoan’s note: Waco’s Veterans One Stop provides veterans and their families a variety of fundamental services in one location, and is the first such facility of its kind in the nation.)

Youth experiencing homelessness are another population that is particularly hard to serve because they’re difficult to identify. Shaun Lee, homeless youth expert for the HOTHC, is the development director for The Cove, an after-school facility for high school-aged teens experiencing homelessness. “One of our biggest challenges is just identifying those experiencing homelessness; they’re not always easy to recognize and we work with the school districts to know who they are. Teens may experience homelessness without even realizing that’s what it is. They may not think they’re homeless if they’re ‘doubled up’ – staying in a friend’s home – or living in their car, but they don’t have a consistent place to go home to. High schoolers often think it’s their fault that their situation is out of control.”

Integrated into all homeless populations is how they are affected by the law, and the Waco Police Department maintains an active collaboration with the HOTHC. Sgt. Chet Long serves as law enforcement representative for the Coalition; he supervises the WPD’s Neighborhood Engagement Team, created to break down barriers between the community and the police department. Several challenges face the Police Department in dealing with both those experiencing homelessness and the businesses in whose areas they stay. “We have a lack of low-barrier resources available to our officers working the streets, and most resources are unavailable after hours,” he said. “We need options when a response is required.”

Challenges to Providing Desperately Needed Services: Views from the Trenches

“Our biggest challenge across the board is finances, because that affects housing and having enough workers,” said Eckley. “There can also be high turnover in this kind of work, because it can become overwhelming, especially dealing with mental health issues.”

“Our state lacks access to quality care, not just with regard to mental healthcare, but in social services as a whole,” said Garner. “When we complain about ‘homelessness,’ we have to realize that people experiencing homelessness are not the problem, the gaps and faults in the system are. It’s the same with mental illness. Our society recognizes the issue of mental illness when a tragedy occurs, but fails to recognize that a person can only receive care that exists. Texas must make mental health care and affordable housing priorities if we’re ever going to make a real impact.”

“One of our biggest challenges is just identifying those experiencing homelessness; they’re not always easy to recognize,” said Lee. “Since the pandemic and the new state law (HB 1925) banning encampments on public land, there’s more fluidity to the homeless population. The biggest fallout of the encampment ban law is that the encampments haven’t disappeared, but they’re more remote and difficult to find now, making it hard to count inhabitants. Two-thirds of Waco residents are housing insecure, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income to rent – they’re just a couple of missed paychecks from being homeless.”

“The bottom-line problem on a local and national level is inadequate affordable housing,” said Clark. “Livable wage jobs are the second biggest challenge, followed by adequate access to medical care. Sixty-five percent of our participants have income, but don’t generally earn enough income to qualify for apartments. Average Supplemental Security income is $914 a month and most landlords require tenants to earn three times the rent. According to HUD Fair Market Rent, a one-bedroom apartment in Waco rents for $787 a month, so a prospective tenant would need to earn $2,361 a month [$787/mo. rent x 4] to qualify, a monthly shortfall of $1,447. Systems are broken, but systems are composed of people and we are broken. I hope we can wrestle with our own brokenness and our responsibility to be a part of a solution. The poor are a reflection on our inaction and a commentary on our priorities as a community.”

“The last thing we as police want to do is make continued arrests when arrests don’t address the root cause,” said Long. “Many who are experiencing homelessness struggle with mental health and substance use disorders. As law enforcement officers, we’re called to respond to crisis situations when these may be the root causes. Homelessness is also a challenge when it comes to public and private property; many times, the law doesn’t provide us with a lot of leeway. (Wacoan’s note: Under HB 1925, the anti-encampment bill, a person found sleeping in public can receive a $500 citation.) We aren’t social workers, mental health clinicians or substance use counselors, so we have to partner with organizations that provide
low-barrier resources and respond 24/7. I wish more people focused on the root causes of homelessness rather than temporary fixes.”

Steps to Solving the Complex Issue of Homelessness

“Lean into civic engagement,” said Clark. “It’s our community’s responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable to make new changes. Locally, we need at least an additional 500 affordable housing units to address our homeless population and we need to find better and efficient ways to build affordable housing. We need property taxes equally distributed to all schools to ensure equal education for all, because education alleviates poverty. The private business sector needs to adopt fair chance hiring policies that assess job applicants by qualifications and don’t disqualify them because of criminal record. The current workforce and the unemployed need more educational opportunities for economic advancement.”

“One of our main goals is to help ensure that our youth graduate high school,” said Lee. “A person with no high school diploma is three times more likely to end up experiencing homelessness than someone who graduated high school.”

“Education is a must,” said Long. “Being homeless is not a crime, and we all need to work together to be empathetic and address the issues as a community. Unavailability of low-income housing, increased cost of living, mental health issues and substance use play a major part in the chronic issues surrounding homelessness. Moving forward, we need champions to address the causes so the public better understands what we’re faced with.”

“We need affordable and transitional housing,” said Eckley. “We’d need help from the city to incentivize landlords to have a certain percentage of their properties – even one or two apartments – available to our clientele so that we can place them quickly when the need arises. We could use more trained street outreach workers, and increased collaboration with our counterparts in health care, education and law enforcement. There’s still social stigma surrounding homelessness, and one way to help with that is community education, which we’ve just started again. The HOTHC is meeting with business leaders and church groups to provide education, and equip them with resources beyond calling 911. Karisa Garner and Shaun Lee from our Coalition board had started business leader meetings before COVID and had to take a pause, but we held our first meeting again late last month. We’re meeting with church leaders and groups this month. We want to inform and educate in a helpful way to funnel resources where they’re needed. We’ll get feedback from those groups and then see how we can help.”

“While our greatest challenges occur on state and federal levels, social stigma and miseducation regarding mental health and homelessness greatly affect our ability to do our jobs effectively,” said Garner. “The best thing we as providers and advocates can do is to have intentional conversations with our community members, our friends and our family. Education can occur in any space – we’ve canvassed downtown area businesses and dropped by to have casual conversations with business owners about homelessness in Waco, what access to services looks like and what barriers to stability exist. Many leaders in our service community have met with schools, businesses and churches to educate on system gaps and promote their organization’s needs. The best way to support our efforts is to listen.”

Parting Words from Front-Line Workers in the War on Homelessness

“There is not one ‘face’ of homelessness,” said Ormsby. “One thing I love about my job working directly with unhoused veterans is getting to know each person and their unique story. Yes, there might be common themes, but the circumstances and events leading to someone’s current situation vary greatly. One common theme is a lack of connection or community, a lack of a safety net or support. It makes me think of opportunities that various groups, churches and organizations have to connect with people and bring them into their community. There are many efforts for this, but there’s always room for more. When I see someone pandhandling or someone who appears to be unhoused, I don’t assume they are addicts or lazy as is a common misconception, because I’ve gotten to know so many stories. They include heartbreak, tragedy and trauma – but also courage, resourcefulness, joy and a great sense of humor despite really difficult circumstances. There is good and kindness and generosity, and I wish everyone had the chance to get to know our unhoused neighbors as I do in my job.”

“Things are never going to be perfect, but as Christians, members of this community and citizens of the U.S.A., it’s our collective responsibility to do better,” said Clark. “We should strive to lift and elevate those who have been left behind and pushed to the margins. With knowledge, wealth, authority and power come the responsibility to be a blessing to others. As you interact with homeless people across Waco, remember to look people in their faces as if you are looking into the face of Christ. When our homeless and impoverished people in Waco do better, we’ll all benefit. So, let’s do better together.”

“There are still so many misconceptions about homelessness,” said Eckley. “One in particular is that people experiencing homelessness are someone else’s problem. As a society and community, we belong to each other. When you see a person on the side of the road, panhandling or camping or whatever, they have a story. They have humanity and dignity and they belong in our community as much as anyone else. We use the term ‘person experiencing homelessness’ instead of just referring to someone as ‘homeless,’ because words matter. It comes down to a belief in dignity and value. Homelessness is something you experience, not
who you are. So we work to humanize people, to use language that removes the stigma of an experience and brings back the humanity of the individual, to remind us that the person in front
of us is our neighbor.”