Tyler Task Force Aims To Address Growing Homeless Problem
By REBECCA HOEFFNER
Wayne Moore was panhandling outside a Tyler restaurant when he approached a woman and asked her for a dollar.
"She slammed her car door and locked it fast," he said. "I can understand it because of abductions and stuff, but I thought 'I better get out of here. ... Sometimes I say 'hello' to people on the square and they make a face."
Moore, 42, and an estimated more than 400 people are homeless in Tyler, according to the national 2012 Point in Time Homeless Survey and Count administered in January.
In October, the city formed a mayor's task force to address the growing problem of homelessness. The task force's next meeting will be June 21.
"It's a huge issue," said task force chairman City Councilman Martin Heines, who was appointed by Mayor Barbara Bass. "We're trying to determine the best way to support the nonprofits and faith-based organizations ... they know best how to affect the community. We have no preconception that the city can better help than the nonprofits can."
There are several nonprofits in Tyler that are working to make a difference; a few of them are fairly new. Hunger For Love was started by a trio of teenagers who serve a meal on the square every Saturday.
Church Under a Bridge was started at the end of last year to offer a church service alternative for people who might not be comfortable in a traditional church. About 60 to 100 people gather under the bridge Sunday mornings for services, Church Under the Bridge pastor Jabo Thomas said.
"I like Church Under a Bridge," Moore said. "I'm more comfortable being outdoors and not cooped up."
One of the newest endeavors is a nonprofit called Gateway to Hope, the brainchild of nonprofit leaders in the area that have learned the unique issues that the homeless community faces. The city donated an unused building on Valentine Street, and executive director Pat Mallory estimated the renovations will be complete in the next two months.
Often, people who are homeless don't have access to essential things that most people don't think of, like a photo ID, mailboxes, lockers, a message center, computer access, a barber shop, a place to do laundry and showers.
"Many times someone who's homeless can't get a job simply because they don't have those things," said Ms. Mallory, known as Mama Pat on the street.
According to research released by The Salvation Army last week, although 88 percent of Americans believe people living in poverty deserve a helping hand and 60 percent of Americans believe it is difficult to escape poverty once becoming poor, 49 percent of Americans believe a good work ethic is all a person needs to escape poverty.
When Garland Craig walked into the lobby of Marvin United Methodist Church clean-shaven and neat, it was not evident that he was homeless. Craig, 63, has learned how to hide his living situation over the past 10 years that he's been on and off the street. He would find places to take showers, such as universities and the YMCA, he said.
"I would be in a place all dressed up and cleaned up, and no one would know I was homeless," he said. "Finding a place to get cleaned up -- that's a hustle in and of itself."
Craig struggles with alcoholism and has been to three rehabs in the past 10 years. He owned his own home and ran a small sealant and waterproofing business and was married for 15 years. He lost all of it to alcohol and has been in prison for DWI charges.
"When you've lived in a $200,000 house and find yourself sleeping under a bridge, it's a wakeup call," he said.
Craig has been in and out of shelters, including the East Texas Rescue Mission, which closed its doors in 2010.
He and more than 30 other men were sent back to the streets when the shelter closed after the owner violated several city ordinances. The impact of the closing is still being felt, Heines said.
Craig has a roof over his head -- he's staying with a friend who isn't in town much, he said. But he still struggles with his alcoholism.
"You lose all your self-respect," he said. "I know I need some help. I've just never got over losing all that stuff. I used to give to organizations that helped people like me."
Moore declined to say where he's living. Moore lost his job in construction after having a heat stroke, and has been looking for work in Tyler since Christmas.
As single men, Moore and Craig are the majority for the face of homelessness, but that's not the only group affected.
"Across the spectrum, single individuals represent the highest percent of respondents in our surveyed population at 68 percent, a decrease (from 2011) of 6 percent," according to the Point in Time survey. "Persons in households without children decreased 4 percent. However, homelessness in families with children rose 9 percent over 2011."
More than 20 percent of the homeless in Tyler are children. At least 20 percent of them do not attend school, and if they do attend, they don't stay at one school very long.
Another group facing homelessness in Tyler and across the country, a group whom Heines found particularly "compelling" was military veterans. The survey counted 19 percent of the surveyed population as veterans, a 3 percent increase from last year. Heines and other officials fear that the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder will take the newest generation of veterans from their homes as well.
The Andrews Center has been working to help veterans who find themselves homeless. The center already runs two houses for homeless veterans in Tyler, and the board approved the opening of another Thursday.
"There won't be any problem filling the new house," said Collett, director of the program. "I have guys waiting."
Officials at the organizations that make up the task force all agree they're happy to have the city's support.
There are grants that require a government body's support,
The next meeting will include a presentation from an expert in the Homeless Management Information System, an online database software that helps nonprofits track individuals and the services they receive. The software is expensive, Heines said, but many grants require it.
There are many facets to the homeless issue, but city and nonprofit officials are hopeful about the progress that can be made.
"The gaps we're able to come up with are achievable," Heines said. "We have such a great, giving community. People want to affect change in the lives of the homeless and close these gaps very quickly, but it takes time. As a city councilman, I feel like I need to participate to affect that change."