Waco-area programs addressing youth homelessness got a considerable shot in the arm with the recent announcement of a $2.23 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant awarded to the Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition.

The grant, one of two given in the state, is part of $75 million awarded in HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, which supports a variety of approaches aimed at providing housing of some sort to youth 25 and younger. The amount is nearly double the $43 million awarded last year and indicates the priority Secretary of Housing Ben Carson puts on solving homelessness, HUD Region VI spokesperson Patricia Campbell said.

“Homelessness is no way to start out in life for young people reaching adulthood,” Carson is quoted as saying in a press release announcing the grants. “Today we make another critical investment in the futures of our youth, sparing them a life on the streets or in our shelters and placing them on a path to self-sufficiency.”

The local coalition’s first grant request two years ago was denied, but the collaboration of groups addressing homelessness worked in favor of the coalition’s second, and successful, attempt.

“From the department’s point of view, the coalition certainly is to be congratulated on their grant. They were one of only 23 grants awarded,” Campbell said.

HOT Homeless Coalition members were still elated days after news of the grant. The sheer size of the award opens the door to possibly realizing programs that have so far only been dreamed about, said Shaun Lee, coalition chairman and program director for the Heart of Texas Region MHMR.

“Having funding of this magnitude has always been a dream of ours. It’s exciting to be able to put pen to paper on some of these ideas,” Lee said. “This is game-changing.”

He said coalition members would brainstorm and plan over the next few months and submit plans to HUD for review and approval.

The Cove is the leading organization in the HOT Homeless Coalition that specifically works with homeless youth, providing after-school services for homeless Waco Independent School District students at its Washington Avenue center. An estimated 1,000 Waco ISD students are considered homeless, including about 200 without parental support.

The district brings students to the center where they can do their laundry, have a hot meal and take a shower. The center also offers mental health care, tutoring and case management services.

The Cove likely will be the main beneficiary of the new grant funding, but other area groups also provide services of some sort to homeless young people and were part of the grant proposal, Lee said.

Cove Executive Director Kelly Atkinson said the money would allow the organization to expand, add more staffers and try new ideas.

“We really would like to start a Host Homes program where families with a spare room or extra space could provide food and shelter for someone for a semester or a year at a time,” Atkinson said. “These are dreams.”

The Cove also has wanted to help youth who have just graduated from school through mentor programs or housing and employment support.

“That transition into independence and adulthood can be harder than the time at school,” she said.

The Cove has an annual budget of about $350,000 and had been looking at having to make up $52,000 in city funding that ended this year.

Lee said the two-year grant is intended to allow some experimentation with strategies for achieving the recipients’ goals. Successful programs could then be added to the coalition’s annual funding request to HUD, he said.

Grant conditions require the input of homeless young people in shaping the programs, and Atkinson said The Cove has a youth advisory board that includes members between 16 and 24 years old who either are homeless or have been in the past.

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