Matt Briscoe, Jamie Lawson and Art Metzinger
The Southside Light
There is not much doubt that homelessness is becoming a problem in Corpus Christi and there is not much doubt that most business owners and citizens alike agree that something has to be done about the problem. But the elephant in the room is determining exactly what the solution is to the problem? It seems that everybody from Flour Bluff to Annaville is impacted in some way, shape or form and the truth is that there really is no clear answer to the problem, but it does seem that there are some clear methods of mitigating the problem without being discriminatory.
"Just feeding them and giving them clothes is not nearly enough," said homeless advocate Richard Billings. "You have to really provide more than a bandaid to the problem."
Many in the community are arguing that private organizations like Timmons Ministries out on Flour Bluff are doing just that, in part because they would likely claim that they just don't have the money to do more. Others would further argue that organizations such as Timmons just simply don't have the practical knowledge to effectively combat the problem. Experts in the field claim that either scenario could be true.
"You have to be very careful how you approach that issue," Billings says. "Reason being is because you end up looking as if all you are doing is serving as a blockade to keep the homeless out of one neighborhood as opposed to another and that is not where you want to be."
Billings does argue that if the hyperlocal solution is simply to relocate the homeless from one neighborhood to the other then you must offer the homeless more than what they are getting where they are at.
"Give them food, water and clothing and they will hang around," says Billings. "If relocation is simply going to be your endgame then by all means, offer them more. But then again, that solves little more other than you just not having to deal with the problem."
One feasible solution, says Billings is similar to a program in Little Rock, Arkansas that actually puts homeless citizens to work beautifying the community. The Bridge to Work program helps panhandlers get work picking up trash (paid for by the City of Little Rock) as a way to broker them to sustainable employment or services-- and they say that the program is actually working to a large extent.
The program pays members of the homeless community $9.25 an hour to clean up litter from its city streets. That's some two dollars an hour more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. The city of Little Rock has spent some $80,000 on the fairly new project, but what they have seen is without a doubt a cleaner community.
"The Little Rock that you see today is 100% cleaner than the Little Rock that you saw just one year before the project began," says Little Rock homeless advocate Greg McDonald. "The benefits are much further reaching than you could imagine and when it is properly administered, it's a win- win for the homeless community and the city."
While many here in Corpus Christi would certainly discard and oppose any such idea, there are some who are willing to put the idea on the table.
"It doesn't even have to be city funded," says McDonald. "I'd bet you could get that kind of money from donors if you really tried and then administer it privately as an alternative, if you wanted to go that route."
But digging even deeper into the possible solutions you see that there are other viable options short of using up tightly guarded government funds which often only result in heated debates and little resolution.
Places like Waco's Mission Waco/ Mission World takes a grassroots approach to the problem. As a non-governmental organization (NGO) they do some pretty solid work empowering the local homeless community. The homegrown organization created restaurants, a grocery store, an employment center, a community health clinic and a homeless shelter to help those in the most need.
The approach has been largely welcomed in Waco and the community support has been solid for the most part. Not only does the program offer members of the homeless community a chance to access vital services such as employment services and healthcare, but it provides a pathway for those who need social services--which many argue is a majority.
Texas ranks 49th in mental healthcare and in places like here in Nueces County, the path to accessing that care is often difficult to navigate and even more difficult to obtain.
The chronically homeless are a subset of the homeless population that is often the most vulnerable. These are people who have been living on the streets for more than a year, or four times in the past three years, and who have a "disabling condition" that might include serious mental illness, an addiction or a physical disability or illness.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that represents about 20 percent of the national homeless population.
In Utah, for instance they have implemented a model known as Housing First. Since its inception, Utah has reduced that number from nearly 2,000 people in 2005, to fewer than 200 now.
Bob Carpenter is considered chronically homeless in Utah, and his life is about to change.
Right now he lives in an encampment outside of Provo in the woods next to a park.
Becca Carter and Nina Rangel, outreach workers from the nonprofit Volunteers of America, regularly visit Carpenter at his encampment that he currently calls home.
Carpenter has cleared out a little spot there for his belongings and according to him, he likes to think of this place as his own little campground. Carpenter is 48 years old, but looks a lot older than that.
He says he's been living outside for five years and for Carter, she believes that is far too long.
Like many who are in that situation they struggle with drugs and alcohol. But, if honesty prevails her, many reading this article struggle from the same illness and are one wrong decision away from being where Carpenter is at himself.
But for Carpenter, his luck is about to change thanks to this new program. Carpenter is about to get his own apartment, mostly paid for by the federal government and he won't have to spend another winter outside.
Under a previous anti-homelessness model, Carpenter would've had to prove he was sober and drug-free prior to getting housing and take that warm bath. Or he could have just stayed in the tent city.
Under Utah's Housing First program, Carpenter will get housed with few questions asked about his sobriety. Those questions will come later. The priority, says program managers is to get them housed and off the streets first and deal with the rest later.
Politically speaking, the program originated from early on in the Bush administration and even then, some deeply fiscal conservatives took issue with the program.
"What you end up with is a good portion of the community in Texas and nationwide believe that these people are simply getting tough love and are going through what they deserve," says Billings. "And though that might be a thought, 'there by the grace of God go I.'"
While the solution is debatable, notable offerings do exist for helping those in the most need. Experts criticize organizations like the Salvation Army, who do little more than put a bandage on the problem and they are encouraging those who truly want to help to think local and think broadly.
"If your city has less than 1,000 homeless then you have the ability to get a handle on it while the crisis is still manageable," says Billings. "Beyond that is when you start running into serious problems."