Breaking the homelessness cycle across Collin County

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Collin County urgently needs more affordable housing to help reduce homelessness, according to the Collin County Homeless Coalition’s 2015 census report.

Released April 2, the census is a snapshot of the lives of 367 people experiencing homelessness in the cities of Plano, Frisco, Allen and McKinney. Participants who completed the surveys the night of Jan. 22. were living outside, in homeless shelters and transitional living homes, or in other locations, the report stated.

Stacy Brown, chairwoman of the Collin County Homeless Coalition, said the report revealed the first and second top reasons for homelessness in Collin County are lack of money and unemployment.

The coalition defines homelessness as a person who lacks stable housing and resides either outside, in homeless shelters and transitional living homes, in hotels paid for by faith communitities, in cars, or at other temporary locations.

“Fifty-six percent of adults were employed but could not find affordable housing. That’s very telling,” Stacy Brown said. “There’s a lot to be said about being underemployed. Many were in jobs in which they could be doing more but can’t get the jobs that pay more, so they may have two or three jobs just to make ends meet.”

In addition to the Samaritan Inn in McKinney, which is almost always full, local shelters, such as Hope’s Door, City House, Emily’s Place, Family Promise and the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation house homeless residents, Stacy said.

For the first time, education and job training was the second -highest need according to respondents, just below housing and above medical-dental care and food. In addition, 8 percent of respondents cited divorce as a problem, which is more than the 4 percent who reported mental illness, Stacy Brown said.

But the census does not reveal the full extent of the situation since 71,922 nights of shelter were given to people in Collin County.

“Twelve percent [of respondents]had been homeless for more than a year and have a disability—the highest it’s ever been. We need to have a coordinated response for people who have chronic homelessness,” Stacy Brown said.

Homelessness and children

Shortly after starting his workday in early April, Plano ISD Student Services coordinator James Thomas receives an email from an assistant principal at a local middle school. The principal is worried about a sixth-grader whose family has nowhere to live. The calls and emails do not stop, and time is of the essence when it comes to assisting students living on the brink of homelessness, Thomas said.

“This is not my sole job. I have a litany of other things to do. But this is one that emotionally drains me because I like people so much,” Thomas said. “This is my home; [Plano is] where I’ve always lived. My fear is not being able to do a lot for them.”

Thomas Elementary School was named after the PISD coordinator’s grandfather, a custodian who was the city’s first African-American firefighter. His grandfather was also a humanitarian, a tradition Thomas preserves as PISD’s homeless coordinator and liaison for the Collin County Homeless Coalition.

Awareness of the homelessness issue in Collin County was roused about four years ago when the Collin County Homeless Coalition was formed. In that time, several new agencies in Plano and throughout the county have emerged, making the front against homelessness stronger. And the work continues, Thomas said.

“I think when [the census]started out, we had about 40 kids who were classified as homeless [in Plano]. Last year we had 484 students—and that’s not even remotely all of them,” Thomas said. “There’s an average of four to five times more than that in our district. Finding those kids, that’s the challenge.”

To help identify students in need, Thomas meets with administrators, office staff and counselors on a monthly basis, emphasizing what signs to look for: students who are the first to arrive and the last to leave, returned mail, a student begging for food at lunchtime or having the propensity to wear the same clothing every day.

Thomas knows every food bank and charity in Plano and depends on them to provide the resources students and their families need.

“Those are my people because they come to the rescue of my students and play a major role. Our goal is to service [these students]and make sure they have as much as they need,” Thomas said. “I just want to sprinkle dust on [these students]to make the pain go away. How can my students function well when he or she doesn’t know where they’re sleeping tonight or what he or she is eating tonight?”

Preventing homelessness

To help Plano families transition out of homelessness, Plano Community Services Manager Shanette Brown said the municipality provides rent, utilities and mortgage assistance through its homelessness prevention program.

“We have a five-year consolidated plan that [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] makes us report on over these five years how many people we are going to assist. We have assisted 97 people in Plano with shelter services and support services (from 2010 to 2014),” Shanette Brown said.

Over the next five years, Shanette Brown said the city is expected to serve 250 homeless people with these services as well as an additional 200 people in shelter services with help from local shelters and organizations.

Plano Deputy City Manager LaShon Ross also emphasized the city’s proactive stance in the prevention of homelessness and also for addressing the homelessness issues that the city currently faces.

“We are not interested in waiting until the situation becomes chronic and much more difficult to manage,” she said.

For information about the Collin County Homeless Coalition and to view the coalition’s 2015 census, visit www.facebook.com/collinhomeless.

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