After clearing four homeless camps this fall, the city is poised to come up with a plan to better address homelessness in Waco.
Director of Housing and Community Development Galen Price said the city plans to hire a homeless coordinator, a position that has been vacant for the last two years. The coordinator will serve as a liaison between the city and the Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition and work with the nonprofit to develop a strategic plan to address homelessness.
“The thought is that the homeless coordinator would work with the coalition in development of those strategies and goals, and work to assist with implementation … once they’re established,” Price said.
Developing and implementing the plan will be no small undertaking and will involve talking to every agency in the coalition about what needs they see in the community, Price said.
After years of declining rates of homelessness in Texas, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a 15% increase in homelessness in the state last year.
Price said the coordinator would assist in managing the city’s Homeless Management Information System, a massive registry that logs the services homeless individuals receive and the shelters they stay in.
Between the colder weather and the closure of homeless camps in the city, The Salvation Army of Waco is serving more people, Commanding Officer Jim Taylor said.
“We were probably averaging somewhere around 12 men a night, and now all our beds are full and have been full for a month,” Taylor said.
The organization also has been serving more meals than it has in previous months, he said. It served 5,400 meals in October, 1,000 more than October of last year. There are 20 beds in the men’s shelter, but it housed 35 with mats and cots during last week’s coldest nights.
“This isn’t a judgment, just a statement of fact: When you close camps, where are they going to go?” Taylor said. “Some of them will end up coming to the shelters. Some will find another place to camp. Some will leave town altogether.”
Shelter Director Jorge Delgado said just under a quarter of the guests at The Salvation Army are regulars. He said most of the men there were 55 or older when he started at the shelter five years ago.
“What I’m seeing now is a trend of homeless folks under the age of 40,” Delgado said.
Among those younger men, their situations are as varied as ever, he said. About half those younger adults come from the foster care system, said Delgado, who formerly worked for Child Protective Services. Last year, The Salvation Army worked with three 18-year-olds who were still in high school.
He said a city homeless coordinator would be helpful to his staff, serving as a programmer with the authority to make changes to the Homeless Management Information System data and troubleshoot when needed.
“That position needs to be filled,” Delgado said. “We still find flaws here and there.”
Sally’s House, The Salvation Army of Waco’s shelter for women and children, is a three-bedroom house with about 12 beds that are almost always full. Jeanna Hamilton, who has been homeless in Waco since April, said she was lucky to narrowly get a bed at Sally’s House during the recent cold snap.
“I sat down, took one bite of my noodles, and they said ‘There’s one bed left. It’s first come, first served. You’d better get over there,’” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t eat dinner or I wouldn’t have gotten a bed.”
She said she, her husband, and their tight-knit group of friends rarely goes to the shelters, only doing so during dangerously cold or hot weather.
“We go to shelters on freezing nights because we don’t want to freeze to death, but on the nights we can handle being out we stay out because we don’t want to put out people who actually (need shelter),” Hamilton said. “The ones who are physically disabled and can’t be out, we don’t want them out in it.”
Her friend, Brooke Haliburton, a Waco native who has been homeless off and on for about 12 years, said she has noticed there seem to be more homeless women.
“They need a bigger space for women, you know, the homeless population is growing,” Haliburton said.
Y’Kenya Robertson, who oversees Sally’s House, said she has seen a steady increase over the years in the number of families seeking help.
“I’m seeing an incline in families who just cannot make ends meet,” Robertson said. “It’s too much for them. There’s no place to go.”
She said most of the women are 30 and older and a high number come as referrals from Waco Independent School District.
“It’s something that’s increasing, but it’s hard to fight against it when you only have the Family Abuse Center and us,” Robertson said. “You have Compassion Ministries, but they have their own waitlist to deal with.”
Compassion Ministries, a transitional housing program for families with children, has 14 full apartments and a waitlist that never diminishes. Compassion’s program focuses on helping families become stable with finance assistance, and while the program has strict rules, it also boasts a high success rate.
Executive Director Jill McCall has been leading the organization since 1999 and said the number of families who turn to them for help has held steady. However, Waco’s changing housing market has made things more difficult for the people who go through a Compassion Ministries program.
“We’re seeing more and more of our residents who were successful graduates unable to qualify for decent rentals in Waco because they have increased in price so much,” McCall said.
Starting in January, Compassion will start working closely with housing organizations including NeighborWorks Waco, Grassroots Community Development and Habitat for Humanity to get families into housing after they leave Compassion Ministries.
“That’s been a huge shift in our focus, and I think it’s a positive shift because of the lack of affordable, safe housing for families with children,” McCall said. “We have to do something, because our people are leaving here and we know they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do, yet now we can’t get them into a decent place to live.”
While there is some affordable housing in Waco, there is not enough, said Carlton Willis, associate executive director of programs at Mission Waco. Mission Waco oversees My Brother’s Keeper, an emergency homeless shelter that houses people for up to 63 days with the goal of connecting them with case workers and social services.
“The goal is to move them to self-sufficiency and independence,” Willis said.
The number of people in the shelter fluctuates from 15 to 50 depending on the weather, he said.
Willis said Waco is the only city in the six-county Heart of Texas region with homeless shelters, which means transient people from larger cities including Austin, Houston and Dallas tend to come to Waco if they leave the larger city.
Laurie and Dusty Kirk have been operating The Hangar for about four years, providing meals and a gathering place for people who are unsheltered.
Their sole focus is on building trust with unsheltered homeless people who avoid seeking help from other sources, in hopes of helping them.
“Each one’s individual problems are different. There’s not a cookie-cutter solution,” Dusty Kirk said.
The Kirks, both retired Air Force veterans, began volunteering at Mission Waco’s Meyer Center, but quickly saw a need they were not sure how to fill.
“We really felt that we needed to have a place,” Laurie Kirk said. “There were so many times we would be out and we would wish we could be warm or fix a pot of coffee. This gives a central location where people know they can come when they’re in crisis, or when they need us, they know they can come to this place and they’ll have refuge.”
The number of people they see has tended to hover around 40, she said.
“It takes a long time to build that trust, there’s some we’ve been working with for three or four years,” Laurie Kirk said. “For everyone, it’s different. It might start out with an ID card or a birth certificate.”
Michael, who asked to go by his first name, said he spends time at The Hangar and a nearby day camp operated by Church Under the Bridge. He moved to Texas four years ago. He said he became homeless after he found himself in crisis and spent time in a mental hospital receiving treatment for bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. His significant other ended their relationship, and he found himself with nowhere to go after he was discharged.
“The best help is here at The Hangar,” Michael said. “The worst place, I would say, is My Brother’s Keeper, because they want you to pay to stay.”
My Brother’s Keeper has $2 to $5 daily fees. Michael, who works in food service, said he primarily avoids shelters.
He said that after his first month of being homeless in Waco, he noticed police were quick to issue criminal trespass warnings and citations, and there have been fewer and fewer places to go.
“They’ve been pushing us out, because apparently Waco is supposed to be homeless-free,” Michael said.
Laurie Kirk said guests at The Hangar have a variety of reasons for avoiding shelters or social services. In some cases, they distrust the systems outright. Some cannot stand the confinement of the shelter. Some simply have pets that cannot come with them into shelters.
“Community is important,“ she said. “They tend to feel isolated from society, so a community is important to help them overcome a lot of their barriers.”
“By having somewhere they can congregate, they can talk to each other, it’s something they haven’t had before and it’s helpful to them,” Dusty Kirk said. “It’s a community.”