It started when Anne noticed her son Jared rubbing his chest, short of breath. On his yearly wellness visit, she discovered the cause: scoliosis. His spine curving at 17 degrees, Jared was referred to a specialist. But a month later, at his next appointment, the curve had progressed from 17 to a staggering 65 degrees. If it reached 100 degrees, his spine would begin crushing his heart and lungs. Anne was blindsided. She went to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital first. They had a six-month waiting list before Jared could even be seen. He couldn’t wait that long.
A single mom, Anne worked four jobs. She is an active member of the PTA. “At that point, things financially were already tight,” Anne admits over a drink at Coffee del Rey. Jared is a 15-year-old Plano student with special needs and a penchant for video games. He wants to become a Youtube star to help support his mother. While he was homebound recovering, Anne quit three of her four jobs to care for him.
“There’s nobody else,” she explains. “It’s just him and me.” Anne found herself dipping into the next month’s paycheck just to cover rent and keep a roof over their heads, but when we talked in February, Jared hadn’t been to physical therapy since the end of December because of mounting unpaid medical bills. Eventually, resources exhausted, Anne opened a GoFundMe page, gofundme.com/jaredscoliosis, just to keep afloat. She has raised half of the money she needs to keep her home and her son’s health. Without checkups and physical therapy, Jared’s spine could curve again, putting them back at square one.
Anne isn’t alone. Collin County is full of families like Anne and Jared who are one crisis away from homelessness.
On a cold January night, volunteers and members of the Collin County Homeless Coalition (CCHC) shrug on reflective vests, pack flashlights on their belts and venture into the streets. They are part of a nationwide, night-long project to capture a snapshot of homelessness on one of the most brutal nights of the year. Jeremiah Hammer has walked an East McKinney beat for five years, watching the number of homeless individuals fluctuate like the weather. “It’s one of those things that’s easy to ignore if you live in a prosperous city,” he explains. He has served on McKinney’s Housing Authority and is currently running for office in city government. “It’s easy to ignore. You don’t notice the underbelly.” This year, and on this one night, volunteers identified 443 homeless people in Collin County. Of the individuals identified, 131 were children. This is not a big number. But it isn’t the only number.
PISD’s homeless liaison, James Thomas, doesn’t check the streets, but school halls. Black trash bags lean against the bookshelf in his office, stuffed with donated clothes for local children. He’s also on the board of City House, a shelter for homeless youth. “I’ve lived in Plano forever and a day,” James tells me. “When I took this job I wasn’t concerned at all; I thought I wouldn’t have to do nothing…I knew for a fact that we didn’t have homelessness here.” His face softens with an old, familiar pain. “That first year, I had 187 kids. The next year I had about 200. Then 287, then 400-something. Then last year we identified 533 kids.”
From a little East Plano office, Janet Collinsworth’s nonprofit, Agape, works to house homeless women and children living day to day in search of a place to sleep. Often, Agape, like Emily’s Place, Hope’s Door, Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation and Bella’s House, frequently encounter women who have left their homes, their children in tow, to escape some form of domestic violence. Many have credit problems or an eviction on their record, something she calls a first step in what is sometimes a very short fall into homelessness. “Mind, body and spirit, they are coming back from the depths of hell,” Janet says. PISD’s Free and Reduced Lunch Statistics indicate that 15,000 schoolchildren in the district depend on those free and reduced lunches. Based on that number and Plano’s average family size, she estimates that 7,000 families in Plano alone are living below the poverty line.
A Plano native, born and raised, Shanette Brown currently serves as the chair of the Collin County Homeless Coalition (CCHC), a group of volunteers which has assisted local nonprofits in bringing $3.5 million of homeless grants into the county. “Growing up here I just didn’t see it. I was going to school with some kids that were homeless and I never knew it. People are more aware of it now. It’s just the right time.” Shanette remembers the coalition in 2007 when she was one of maybe 10 people attending the monthly Thursday meetings. Today, there are 60 or more. Usually, Shanette has to cast around for enough chairs for everyone, people from all over Collin County, who want to attend. It’s a good problem to have.
Across Collin County, grassroots efforts, individuals and agencies have been building over the years, knee-deep in a worldwide epidemic which has been around as long as the human race. The numbers don’t quite add up—the amount of people in danger of homelessness or without a permanent home is far larger than the census indicates. The longer one looks, the more faces slip out of the woodwork.
On the census walk, they don’t just count heads; they also gather information like demographics and medical issues, while also assessing how many are turned away from shelters due to crowding and how many have been hospitalized multiple times in the past year. Jeremiah describes mental health issues, limited access to medications, even strange encounters with those who don’t want help such as one man who lost his legs to frostbite. “He’s an alcoholic and he’d prefer to have frostbitten legs and be drunk all the time than to be in a home somewhere,” Jeremiah summarizes. “How do we work with that?”
This year, he also met a 31-year-old who is homeless for the first time. He has been taken in by an old hat who has a campfire and sufficient street smarts to show him the ropes. “It’s not a lawless bunch of rebels who don’t care about anything. They are their own family with their own support system. They’ve found a way to get by.”
Some, like Joshua, owner of Renegade Boot Camp, gambled their homes in the hope of a dream paying off. In the process of setting up his own fitness center, he lost his home and bunked down in the back of his gym just to pay for it, skipping meals to provide his employees with a fair salary, $2,000 in the hole while he waited for his investment to pay off. “The hardest part was making that decision,” he tells me. “A lot of people think you’re homeless because you’re an alcoholic or you’re on drugs—that you’ve done something and so it’s easier to walk past that person and not say anything, just write them off.” He’s back in a house today and spends his time building his business and organizing gym-wide monthly giving missions to support local organizations.
Living in Collin County is expensive. In fact, one third of Plano’s population is considered “cost-burden,” spending more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing alone. They are one crisis away from a possible eviction, one missed electric bill away from having a nice house with no power—or no house at all.
It happens all the time. Through his work as a homeless liaison with PISD, James fields calls from desperate parents who have been slapped in the face with sudden financial emergencies. “I close my door when I have a mom call me and say her husband left them two weeks ago with the bills and that she and her elementary daughters have been evicted and they have all their stuff outside and don’t know where to go or what to do,” James confesses, “those are my tough ones, those are the killers. I just close my door, sit there and cry.”
Everyone agrees that the official numbers represent just a fraction of the problem. Many parents fear intervention from CPS and teach their children to say they aren’t homeless when asked. “Whether you want to be classified or not, we’re going to take care of your kid,” James says with conviction. “They don’t know where they’re eating or if they’re eating, or where they’re sleeping at night. We want to minimize that impact.” Many, shuffled between shelters and friends’ houses, try Extended Stay hotels, which cost around $250 a week. In the long run, it’s far more expensive than an apartment. But for a short term solution, it provides an address for schools and taxes and keeps life stable just a little longer.
Collin County is a collection of mid-sized cities that were born and raised as suburbs of Dallas. They were places to settle down away from big city life and raise a family. It’s inevitable that alongside beautiful houses and nice cars, Collin County’s homeless population is primarily made up of suburbia’s number one demographic: families.
Late at night, Walmart parking lots are spotted with cars, piled high with possessions. Open all night, Walmart, unlike Kroger and Tom Thumb, provides round-the-clock access to restrooms. Families sleep there. They clean up, they go to school. They go to work and most get by without anyone having to know. In fact, 33 percent of Collin County’s homeless population is at work, keeping up appearances, their children attending school. But they are bunking down with their possessions wherever they can: in storage units, in parks, in shelters or in friends’ houses, struggling in silence and under the radar.
Shanette has watched what she refers to as a local “evolution” in terms of recognizing and addressing homelessness in our borders. And yet, if no one pays attention, it’s a problem that will only snowball.
There are less than 300 beds available in all of the agencies in all of Collin County. Many people work tirelessly, without complaint or thanks, to shelter people in need, but sometimes the need outstrips the resources in place. Our organizations do outstanding work. But they can’t offer help without support. Since 2012, CCHC has found 4,000 people who have been turned away from every single Collin County shelter because there was simply no room. The majority of these were women and children. When all the loaves and fishes are distributed, someone goes hungry. When medical supplies run dry, someone is left without treatment. When public housing is full, someone will sleep in the cold.
“There’s no place to go,” Agape’s Janet Collinsworth says frankly. One of the biggest hurdles of homelessness is simply where to shelter them. Agape and similar nonprofits can provide transitional housing for those who are struggling to rebuild their lives and their collaboration is vital to providing an adequate support system.
James Thomas, PISD’s homeless liaison, dreams of owning vast lots of land, filling them with apartments and little houses for his students, muscling through the housing crisis on his own. “How in the world can they think about academics if they have no idea where they’ll sleep at night?” he asks.
One of Collin County’s best resources is Samaritan Inn. For three decades, Samaritan Inn has been a beacon, a gathering place for those who want assistance transitioning out of homelessness. Executive Director Rick Crocker calls it a mission to help them regain their dignity, their independence and security: to keep them afloat at the most basic level and provide them with the support they need to rebuild their lives. Samaritan Inn even has a shelter for pets, often the very last possession that homeless families have held onto and one of the most beloved. At the pet shelter, McKinney vets provide care at no cost. When families move into new homes their family pets can come home with them. School districts across the county collaborate to ensure kids staying at Samaritan Inn have buses to take them to school, picking them up first and dropping them off last, protecting their privacy and dignity. Their transitional housing is absolutely vital to families who are rebuilding in the wake of destitution.
CCHC agrees. “Our quick three-word slogan is: Housing for all,” Shanette says. “If we can get people in a house—if someone doesn’t have to worry about where they’re sleeping, we’ll be alright.” Though that is CCHC’s goal, it will take time before it is realized. All of Collin County’s cities are exploring housing options; all have pledged to support production of affordable housing in various ways, whether by funding nonprofits or by supporting private development on a state level. Utah found that it costs less to house a homeless person in an apartment than it would to arrest them and book them through the system. Members of the county hope to raise housing standards all around and ultimately help those in government housing safely transition out of it, working toward renovating both the reality of public housing and our perception of it. Ideally, public housing of the future will look indistinguishable from any other.
Working together, Collin County’s individuals and agencies can also create a continuum of care that addresses the needs beyond housing: job training, child care, financial tutoring, medical care, social work. There are already amazing organizations rallying behind this idea of a full-service, multi-faceted approach to raising the level of care offered.
Homelessness in Collin County is a complicated problem with no easy or holistic answer. “We could get people to acknowledge that there is a problem, that looking away is not an answer, doing nothing is not an answer,” McKinney’s Jeremiah Hammer says. “When you spend a little bit of time volunteering, it’ll open your eyes to some stuff you didn’t know existed…The situation is different every time. It has so many faces.”
Shanette Brown has witnessed a change in the county’s attitude over the past 10 years. “From 2008 to 2017, awareness has increased,” she confirms. “People from all our major cities come to our meetings. We’re all volunteers. Once people realize, they want to help.” As citizens, our most important job may be to find a new understanding of the struggles underneath the surface and to adapt our responses to each individual or family in need—to adapt our very expectations of what homelessness is.
Samaritan Inn’s Rick Crocker, perhaps says it best: “Today in Collin County, homelessness wears faces you wouldn’t expect. It’s the young mom who works two jobs and still can’t afford rent. It’s the 18-year-old who just aged out of the foster care system and doesn’t have the life skills to make it as an adult. It’s the man who lost his job and six-figure salary, unable to find work and struggling to provide housing for his family. Every situation is different; every need is unique.”
When all is said and done, I remember Anne and Jared. Stuck between homelessness and her child’s health, Anne describes her own reluctance to ask for help, the stigma she feels weighing heavily on her shoulders. “I don’t think people realize how quickly it happens,” she says after a moment of consideration. “But Jared has been the biggest blessing in my life.” For the first time in an extraordinarily difficult conversation, she tears up. “He’s my world. I look back on what my life would be without him and I would do it all over again.”
Can we acknowledge that homelessness is here, in our neighborhoods? Can we admit that the true face of homelessness might be our own?
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s April 2017 issue.