Sunday’s annual Walk for the Homeless is as much about celebrating progress made in helping local homeless people find permanent places to live as it is highlighting the challenges that remain in curbing homelessness.
In the nine years since the prayer walk began, Waco’s homeless population dropped from 600 in 2005 to 246 this year, according to data tracked by the city’s homelessness administrator.
The number of people considered chronically homeless has dropped from 97 to 32 in that same period.
Those gains show that collaboration between the city and area nonprofits to curb homelessness are working, said Jimmy Dorrell, executive director of Mission Waco, which hosts the walk.
But he says there is still more to be done to resolve the barriers that lead to homelessness in the first place.
“We don’t want to act like we’ve got a handle on it, because there’s still too many out there,” Dorrell said. “Cautious optimism might be the better word.”
Dorrell said that while the middle class has begun to recover from the economic recession, financial stability has only started to trickle down to the poor, those most vulnerable to homelessness.
“Nationwide, the richer are still getting richer and the poor are still getting poorer, so the gap has widened,” Dorrell said. “There’s a whole lot of myths of poverty — ‘They’re homeless because they’re not working.’ That’s just not true, they are working, they’re just doing part-time jobs or taking minimum wage jobs that don’t lead out of poverty.”
Dorrell said the annual walk helps to educate the Greater Waco community about the ongoing needs of the homeless. Participants stop at several shelters and social service providers around the city, such as Mission Waco’s My Brother’s Keeper shelter, Compassion Ministries’ transitional apartments for women and children, Caritas food bank, Salvation Army and the Veterans Affairs Regional Office.
About 350 people are expected to attend. Mission Waco was also able to take 98 homeless residents to Academy Sports & Outdoors to pick out a new pair of sneakers using donations raised for the walk.
Waco in 2005 began installing a 10-year plan to end homelessness in accordance with a federal focus on the homeless population nationwide. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set a goal of 2016 for ending chronic homelessness, while 2020 is the target for eliminating the number of homeless families.
“A lot of people say, ‘You’re never going to end homelessness,’ and I don’t think that’s ever really been what we’re looking at, but we can certainly make it rare, extremely temporary and a quick turnaround into getting them into housing,” said Teri Holtkamp, the city’s homelessness administrator. “And we can certainly put measures in to prevent it in the first place.”
The chronically homeless in particular can require significant social services, such as mental health counseling or treatment for substance abuse to transition away from life on the streets. A person is considered chronically homeless if he or she has a disabling condition and has been continuously homeless for at least a year or has had four stints of homelessness in the past year.
Holtkamp said new treatment centers, such as Manna House, Oxford House and Grace House, have been successful in helping homeless residents battling addiction. The Heart of Texas Region Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center has been active in outreach and treatment services to the homeless.
Local nonprofits and shelters have been able to take advantage of federal grant programs to provide housing to the homeless. For example, a new rapid re-housing program that started this year works to get those who are chronically homeless into permanent housing immediately, an approach that makes them more likely to take advantage of social programs.
The Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition has also been successful in uniting groups that work with the homeless and impoverished to better target their services.
“We’re working on it collaboratively,” Holtkamp said. “Now is not the time to give up the fight. This is the time to dig deep. We started something, and we need to finish it, and everybody needs to hold true until we get it done because we are so close.”
Dorrell, who has been working with the homeless for 22 years, said he hopes the walk and the coalition’s efforts can continue to broaden the compassion and community focus on helping and empowering the homeless.
“Some people, they’re not angry with the homeless, they just don’t know what to do or they don’t know how to volunteer or they want to understand it more,” Dorrell said. “It’s always been an extremely positive experience for us, how many at the end of the walk would say, ‘I had no idea that was a problem, how can I get involved?’ It’s a very engaging process.”