The Ellis County Homeless Coalition is expecting big things in 2022.
In January, the coalition will get an idea of how many homeless people there are in the county during the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count.
The coalition also expects to form new partnerships as it has a restructured board.
And, if things go well, it hopes to make significant progress in obtaining the first full homeless shelter in Ellis County.
Currently, the only shelter available in the county is Daniel’s Den, which is primarily for homeless females. But there are no shelters for men.
Rhonda Miller, who was named the coalition’s president in November, said a major goal for the upcoming year is to open a shelter to help women, men and children.
“We are very deprived of having shelters for people,” Miller said. “It’s a huge issue.”
Miller said the winter storm in February highlighted the need for a shelter as the coalition put 18 people in hotels.
“It was a great to be able to help them,” Miller said. “But it took the whole community to do it. We went on Facebook to ask for funds. People brought them food. It was pretty awesome. So we got them sheltered temporarily from the cold. But because there are no shelters here, we really would love to see a shelter.”
How big is the problem?
As part of an annual statewide PIT count initiative, volunteers will hit the streets in Ellis County on Jan. 27 to find out how many homeless people there are, their demographics and their situation.
Miller said the numbers from this past January were lower than 2020 because the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way volunteers were allowed to approach and count homeless people.
Miller said the last full PIT count in 2020 showed that there were 74 homeless people in Ellis County.
Also in 2020, there were 341 homeless children, according to data from local school districts. Miller said most of those include children who have no permanent home but stay with various friends or family members.
“They don’t stay in one place,” Miller said. “How they made it through school when they were doing school online, I don’t really know. But they may have been the ones who suffered and didn’t do so well because they were going from house to house and probably didn’t have an internet connection.”
She said oftentimes, people don’t understand how big the problem is since it’s not always visible.
“Sometimes the need is bigger than what you see,” Miller said. “Because you don’t see 74 homeless people hanging out under a bridge. And you don’t see little kids walking around asking for help. So it’s kind of a hidden need that people don’t even realize.”
Frances Stuart, treasurer of the coalition, said there are indicators the problem isn’t getting any better.
“We’re hearing from an influx of people saying they’re going to lose their homes because landlords aren’t renewing their leases,” Stuart said. “And finding an affordable place to live is obsolete.”
She said in many instances, a parent will have to make the decision of feeding the family or paying the rent, adding that food stamps don’t always cover a month’s worth of food, leading to a gap of 10 days or so.
Stuart said on top of the homeless issue, there is also a situation where foster children have aged out of the system.
“You turn 18, they give you voucher and say, ‘bye,’” Stuart said. “So they have nowhere to go. You’re feeding these kids who already have rejection issues, they then go into the drug scene, they think they have no other choice, so they go into sex trafficking. That’s where it increases, because they have nowhere to go.”
Plans for a shelter
Miller said while it’s too early to know exactly what a future shelter would look like, she said there is an abandoned nursing home in the county the coalition would like to purchase.
“Ideally, we could have a wing for women with children, we could have a wing for men and we could have a wing for youth,” Miller said.
Miller said the coalition would have to find another organization to run a shelter since the coalition’s primary responsibilities are to provide resources, utility payment assistance, food, etc.
“The chronically homeless know that, but we have a lot of first-time homeless people that are calling us,” Miller said. “A lot of them are living in the Walmart parking lot. You just really don’t know what’s going on until someone makes you aware of it.”
But Miller said the coalition can help fund the center, and that’s where the public comes in. The coalition hosted its first fundraiser for the shelter on Oct. 16.
“That’s a start,” Miller said. “But obviously it’s going to take a lot of funds.”
Miller said the coalition is also looking for community partners to help in the process, such as offering ideas for an alternative location or ways to pay for it.
Miller said a key in making the shelter a reality is receiving support from local cities.
Miller said she has approached the city of Waxahachie about any possible land it could donate for the shelter in the future, in case the existing nursing home doesn’t work out.
But financial support from local cities will also be key. Stuart said that hasn’t always been the case.
In fact, Stuart said one of the reasons there isn’t a shelter for men is because the homeless problem isn’t always apparent.
“What people don’t realize is that the people that work at the local stores at minimum wage and can’t afford to live are those homeless people we’re talking about,” Stuart said.
Stuart said the coalition encourages the government to implement a voucher system to help people obtain housing.
But she’s hopeful the coalition’s work with other nonprofits will show cities how the homeless problem is intertwined with other issues, such as mental health, and show city leaders how important the cause is.
For example, the coalition provides tents and sleeping bags for a homeless encampment near Palmer.
“The average person is two paychecks away from being homeless,” Stuart said.
Stuart said the recent leadership changes at the coalition could also help. The coalition recently named Miller as its president, and Stuart said that could lead to new partnerships with the cities in Ellis County.
“We had to make some tough decisions and reorganize internally, so that we can go in front of the city and say, ‘Here we are, here are our leaders,’” Stuart said.
In the meantime, the coalition will prepare for the PIT count. In conjunction with the PIT count, the coalition also hosts the Let’s Get Warm Giveaway event, where volunteers invite homeless people they come in contact with to First Baptist Church for hot meals, blankets, clothes, a shower and other giveaways. Salon employees come to the church to provide free haircuts. A doctor will be on hand to give medical advice.
It’s the first of what coalition members hope are many big steps in 2022.
“I think we’ll see some changes,” Miller said.
To help the coalition in its efforts to bring a shelter to the county, contact the coalition at 469-428-7320.