Among the hundreds of people who recently lined downtown Tyler's brick streets for the annual Christmas parade were trendsetters living in nearby lofts, retirees kicked back sipping hot chocolate as grandkids scurried at their feet and young families with children aloft on their shoulders cheering lighted floats decked in holiday decor.

Tucked in among the festive Christmas crowds were another set of residents, those who walked a short distance home to settle in for the night in a wooded area a few short blocks from the manicured downtown square.

As parade-goers headed home to warm houses after Santa's arrival on a fire truck, this group slowly made their way to an encampment on the outskirts of downtown and bedded down in tents and sleeping bags as temperatures dipped to the low 40s.

It's a life some choose willingly, some are thrown into through circumstances beyond their control and some face after years of repeated failures with obstacles that seem almost insurmountable.

Whatever the reason, Tyler's homeless population is real and it's demographics are changing.

 

CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

The annual Point in Time Homeless Survey and Count gives local leaders an idea of the minimum number of homeless people, but it in no way captures the entire population.

Data from the past five years indicate homeless numbers have hovered between 230 and 250. However, Christina Fulsom , founder of the East Texas Human Needs Network, estimated the actual number of homeless people in Tyler likely is closer to 500.

For the purposes of the survey, people are considered homeless if they live in an emergency shelter, transitional housing or are exiting an institution where they temporarily reside; are losing their primary nighttime residence within 14 days and lack the resources or support network to remain in housing; are families with children or unaccompanied youth who have an unstable housing situation or are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence.

Although last January's survey revealed the same number of homeless people as the previous year, it indicated a different makeup that was more alarming, Ms. Fulsom said.

There were more young families with children living on the streets than previous years and the people who were experiencing homelessness were remaining homeless for longer periods of time, she said.

Tyler Police Officer Shane Jasper, a 19-year veteran of the force who has worked the downtown area for seven years, said the homeless population has grown during his time on the beat.

Jasper said when he started working this area, the age of the homeless people he encountered was typically 30 to 50. In the past five or six years, the age has shifted younger, he said.

On a recent walk through some of the homeless camps near downtown, Jasper pointed out a 19-year-old girl, who is pregnant and living on the streets, her baby due this month. In her case, a lack of family support contributed to her homelessness.

In other cases, Jasper said, some of the younger homeless population are dealing with drug or alcohol issues.

Others choose to stay outside because they don't want to adhere to the rules or don't qualify to stay at The Salvation Army, which has a curfew, does not allow drugs and alcohol and prohibits those with criminal backgrounds related to sexual offenses.

The Salvation Army has seen the numbers ebb and flow in the use of its 200-bed shelter. In 2011, it had almost 32,000 bed nights, which is the sum of the number of beds filled each night for the year. In 2012, that number jumped to about 57,800 bed nights. In 2013, it dropped to about 46,700. In 2014, it was about 38,600, and in 2015 it was about 41,100.

 

REASONS AND RESOURCES

Ms. Fulsom said unemployment and lack of affordable housing are the most significant reasons for homelessness. Physical and mental disabilities follow those.

Transportation was the No. 1 reason for unemployment, she said. So basically, if the transportation problem was addressed, people could get a job, which in turn could provide more income for affordable housing.

"It's the reason why (the East Texas Human Needs Network) was established the way that it is," Ms. Fulsom said, "understanding that people need all those foundations to lead a stable life."

Eric Burger, Hiway 80 Rescue Mission's executive director, said he has worked with the homeless population and in shelters for 30 years in Montana, Washington state, New Jersey and West Virginia, in addition to Texas.

He said the reasons for homelessness are incredibly diverse. There is not just one cause. Job loss is a factor, but so, too, is mental illness, family issues and underemployment.

"In the past, homeless was just (an) older alcoholic," Burger said. "Now I've got 17-year-old kids that are still in high school staying with adults because mom has decided to move in with a new boyfriend."

A homeless teen is an entirely different situation than a single mother of four or an adult dealing with addiction, he said.

"The reasons why people are homeless are so diverse," he said. The reality is many of the people who are homeless, if you saw them on the street, you wouldn't identify them as homeless, Burger said.

Emmy Plunkett considers herself one of those people, acknowledging that those who see her on the street probably don't realize the home she returns to each night is a tent tucked behind some trees just a couple blocks from North Broadway Avenue.

Her tent is well kept, with a cot, bold-print blankets and even a small sweater pulled snugly on her companion, a Chihuahua named Roxy. Ms. Plunkett was quick to ask visitors to excuse the mess as she showed off her living quarters last week, explaining she planned to weather the approaching cold front in a sleeping bag.

She's lived there a few months and chose the spot for the solitude, tired of the drama of living in camps with a lot of other people. She said she has a heart condition that prevents her from working and can prove fatal if she gets too excited or stressed, so living in seclusion helps minimize that.

Her life is fairly predictable, with days spent at Gateway to Hope, dinner at The Salvation Army or a local church and evenings in her tent or at a local coffee shop. Sometimes she hangs out at the library and on weekends she participates in the programs under the Gentry Parkway Bridge.

Such resources are critical for Plunkett and other homeless residents who rely on the agencies for food, hygiene needs and assistance finding housing and employment.

Because of the complexity of the issue, it takes multiple agencies and different approaches to address it.

 

DIFFERENT APPROACHES

The Andrews Center, Hiway 80 Rescue Mission and the Gateway to Hope, the East Texas Crisis Center, the city of Tyler, The Salvation Army, PATH, Hunger for Love, Church Under the Bridge and many other churches and organizations play some role in the process.

The Andrews Center in Tyler has invested in a full-time employee who does street outreach work. She makes contact with and interviews people who are homeless to determine if they qualify for mental health services.

Ms. Fulsom said another initiative being touted nationwide is housing first. It is the idea of providing people in need with a home first, which gives them a stable environment. Once they have that stable environment, the belief is they will seek additional services if they need them.

The housing first model is based on the belief that if a person has housing without supportive services they will fail, Ms. Fulsom said, but if they have supportive services without permanent housing, they also will fail. So this model aims to provide both.

Locally, People Attempting To Help (PATH) has stepped into this model — which is intended for the chronically homeless — in a small way with several people who live in the organization's houses.

PATH Executive Director Greg Grubb said the nonprofit has four of its 54 houses dedicated to providing this permanent supportive housing for individuals and families who need an extra level of support and do not meet the organization's requirements for transitional housing.

Apart from housing, Hiway 80's Gateway to Hope in Tyler is a day resource center. There, people can come in and take a shower, do laundry, use computers, get haircuts, receive mail, speak with a case worker and take classes.

It also serves as a connection point for the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission to let people know about the Longview shelter and its nine-month recovery program. The rescue mission will transport people from Tyler to Longview if they want to stay in the shelter, and they also will help them start the recovery program if that is their goal.

Gateway to Hope has served more than 1,400 people since it opened under Hiway 80's leadership in March 2015 and has transported about 130 people to the Longview shelter in the past two years.

Harley Williams came to Gateway to Hope on Wednesday to use the phone.

Williams said he is a veteran of the U.S. Army who had a career as a tree trimmer for 30 years. But an on-the-job injury broke his left arm, damaging his elbow, and he hasn't been able to return to work or get another job since 2014.

After he became homeless, he said he tried standing on a street corner holding a sign asking for money, but he just couldn't do it. It wasn't him. He talked about how he's always been able to find a way out of binds before, but not this time.

"I never been homeless before," said Williams, who has been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs in hopes of getting permanent housing. "I'm 60 years old, for God's sake."

He said in other cultures people help the weakest link, but he doesn't feel like all of society does that today. Still, determination keeps him going. Faith is believing in something you can't see, he said.

"I've got to do something."

Twitter: @ TMTEmily

 

The Salvation Army Shelter

This chart the numbers of times a bed was filled at The Salvation Army shelter in a given year. The shelter has 200 beds, but can set up more, primarily cots, in other facilities if needed.

2011 31,985

2012 57,836

2013 46,767

2014 38,615

2015 41,127

Source: The Salvation Army

 

Point-In-Time Homeless Survey

This survey is conducted annually in January. Volunteers use the "known location" methodology to survey people found at sites identified by the community as places where people who are homeless are known to congregate. This list does not represent the total number of homeless people. It represents those with whom the surveyors talked.

2010 306 including 68 children

2011 243 including 51 children

2012 257 including 55 children

2013 238 including 57 children

2014 247 including 37 children

2015 233 including 43 children

2016233 including 61 children

Sources: Tyler Paper Archives

 

Homeless Students

Tyler ISD had 107 homeless students as of November 2016. Homeless students are defined as people who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

Source: Tyler ISD

 

How to Help

In response to concerns about the homeless population and people who choose to panhandle, the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission, which operates Gateway to Hope in Tyler, produced a pamphlet with suggestions for how people can help.

If you want to offer panhandlers something, consider bottled water or food gift certificates.

Invest in long-term solutions by giving your financial support and volunteering your time to local organizations and service providers.

Exercise caution for your safety when approached by any stranger.

Talk to the person with respect.

Recognize that homeless people and their problems are not all the same.

Be kind.

Source: Hiway 80 Rescue Mission Pamphlet

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