Statistics show that about 1,200 people in Denton County experience homelessness each year, with Lewisville ISD serving more homeless students than any other school district in the county.

In an effort to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring, the city of Lewisville recently entered a public-private partnership with United Way of Denton County. As part of this partnership, the city of Lewisville pledged to donate $25,000 to the Denton County Homelessness Barriers during its upcoming grant cycle.

The Denton County Homelessness Coalition—which is made up of Denton County cities, school districts, nonprofits and other stakeholders—launched the fund in May 2018 to help families in crisis maintain housing.

Courtney Cross, director of mental health and housing initiatives for United Way of Denton County, said homelessness is just one financial hardship away for many in the community.

“Sometimes, all it takes for someone who is housing-insecure—meaning 30% or more of their income goes toward housing costs—is for their car to break down, and they can’t get to work, so they lose their job,” Cross said. “Who knows how long it is until they can •replace that job? And the next thing they know is it’s been a month, and they don’t have enough money for rent.”

As part of their effort, the city of Lewisville and United Way are also putting a special focus on homeless veterans. United Way of Denton County has set a goal to end veteran homelessness in Denton County in 2020.

“We’re really committed to meeting that goal of ending veteran homelessness,” Cross said. “It does take the whole community coming together to make that happen.”

Dedicating resources

Fifty-four households vulnerable to becoming homeless had been assisted by the Denton County Homelessness Barriers fund as of Sept. 15, Cross said. She said those households were assisted with only $21,663 of donations to the fund.

“This fund is super impactful,” Cross said. “The average request is only about $400. It’s not a huge amount of money, but sometimes, receiving even just a little bit of help in a time of need is what changes a family’s trajectory from potentially losing their housing.”

Lewisville is not the only local government that has pledged a donation to this fund. The city of Denton has committed to donating $40,000 to the fund with a required price-match. United Way, which is acting as the fiscal agent for the fund, is now focusing on community outreach in an effort to raise money to match the city of Denton’s donation.

Lewisville City Council Member T.J. Gilmore, who is part of United Way’s leadership team on the issue of homelessness, said he believes the only way to reduce homelessness is through community collaboration.

“I kind of think of it as a three-legged stool,” Gilmore said. “You’ve got your businesses, your municipalities and local governments and the community. This issue is so broad, and it impacts so many different levels and aspects of our community that we have to work in sync as this three-legged stool in a collaborative fashion to be able to make a long-term solution.”

Gilmore said he is optimistic homelessness in Denton County will be significantly reduced if the community continues to work together toward that goal.

“We have to be able to meet people where they are,” Gilmore said. “The vast, vast majority of people that I’ve met want to be productive members of society, and they just—they just want to be good citizens and good neighbors. And I think this whole process that we’re building here is going to give us a way to, if not end homelessness, make it brief, rare and non-recurring.”

Denton County Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell, who is also on the United Way homelessness leadership team, said she is hopeful that she can work with her fellow county commissioners to identify potential grant money so that the county can help reduce local homelessness.

“As I always say, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’” Mitchell said. “And some of us in Denton County have been so blessed that we need to help others.”

Mitchell said she believes the community should give a “hand-up” to neighbors who are experiencing hardship.

“When I grew up, I wasn’t ever homeless, but I didn’t always have food to eat and didn’t always have changes of clothes,” Mitchell said. “So I guess I’m sensitive to the needs of others. There are a lot of people that want help, but they don’t know where to go.”

Students facing homelessness

According to data from Lewisville ISD, 2,449 students experienced homelessness in 2018.

Lewisville ISD topped the list of Denton County school districts for this statistic. Denton ISD came in second, with 567 students who were homeless at some point in the 2018-19 school year.

The U.S. Department of Education considers students homeless if their primary nighttime residence is a place not designed for or ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations—such as cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or similar settings. Students who are sharing housing with other people due to loss of housing or economic hardship are also considered to be homeless by the department.

“Homelessness just looks really different for every person,” Cross said. “There’s some folks who are, for whatever [reason], living unsheltered in the woods or on a street corner. That’s what a lot of people think of when they hear ‘homeless.’ But we also have a lot of people in our community that are living in their cars. They may park and sleep in a Walmart parking lot, and they might have a Planet Fitness membership because they can go in and take a shower.”

Lewisville ISD Director of Counseling Monya Crow said the district takes certain steps when it finds out a student is homeless.

“We immediately make sure the student is put on our free lunch and free breakfast program so we can make sure that they’re being fed,” Crow said. “In addition to that, they automatically get put on our counselor caseload so they can check in with the student and contact the family and see what their needs are. And when it’s appropriate, there’s an additional referral to social workers as well so they can step in and connect the family with community resources.”

Crow said she thinks there is a misconception that communities do not experience homelessness in suburban cities like Lewisville, Flower Mound or Highland Village.

“But we know that we do,” Crow said. “And I’m encouraged to see more community partners getting together to see how we can support our families more and make sure that we can continue to increase resources so that no one has to experience homelessness.”

Helping homeless Veterans

As part of the local effort to reduce homelessness, officials and community leaders are putting a special emphasis on helping veterans who are homeless.

As of Sept. 30, there were 39 known homeless veterans in Denton County, which is home to more than 41,000 veterans overall, according to data collected by United Way in partnership with public and private agencies. Another 2,073 veterans in Denton County are living in poverty, making them more at-risk of becoming homeless.

In fall 2018, United Way’s leadership team on homelessness adopted a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2020.

Cross said the goal is for people across the private, public and nonprofit sectors to come together to support veterans experiencing homelessness. She said United Way regularly works with U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to help identify veterans in need so that the nonprofit can dispense aid for them with money from the Denton County Homelessness Barriers Fund.

Other organizations in the community have stepped up to offer help to homeless veterans. In September, Green Extreme Homes, in partnership with Citibank and other organizations, opened the Mullins Transitional Home for Female Veterans in Lewisville. The eco-friendly home consists of seven bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms. It can house up to five female veterans at a time. Residents of the home are offered financial coaching, counseling as well as education and career development programs.

“Veteran homelessness is on the rise, and it’s not because these wonderful patriots that have served our country make bad decisions,” said Jean Brown, executive director of Green Extreme Homes.

Brown said a veteran who spoke at the grand opening of the home likened leaving the military to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

“She said, ‘I was 30 years old when I got out, and luckily, I could go live with my parents. But a lot of people don’t have that luxury,’” Brown said. “Our soldiers are just not paid well at all.”

According to a 2019 community needs survey by United Way, 9,000 veterans in Denton County are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Brown said adjusting to civilian life after military service can be difficult for veterans, and many feel ashamed to reach out for help.

“According to the [U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs], female veterans are the fastest-growing homeless population,” Brown said. “They’re ‘the silent homeless’ because they don’t come forward. There’s shame, humiliation.”

Brown said she decided to open the home after noticing a severe lack of resources specifically for female veterans.

Melinda Lumpkin, who served in the U.S. Navy for 10 years, is the first resident at the Mullins Transitional Home for Female Veterans.

Before meeting Brown, Lumpkin said she was doing her best to get by, going to school during the day and taking a shower and getting dinner at the Salvation Army in Dallas at night.

“Homelessness kind of makes you feel like you’re in a subordinate position,” Lumpkin said.

Once asked to go to dinner with Brown and some other people involved in opening the home, Lumpkin said, her life changed.

“These empowering women were so respectful and appreciative to me,” Lumpkin said. “So that really helped me mentally to be like, ‘OK, this is where you’re at. But there’s hope.’”

Within a week of that dinner, Lumpkin moved into the Mullins home.

“Things did happen really quick,” Lumpkin said. “So as soon as I got here, I went to take my real estate test, and I got my license. That was a huge goal of mine—to get into real estate. So that’s my goal right now is to build a successful career around that.”

Lumpkin said living at the home is giving her the resources she needs to get back on her feet.

“It has changed everything for me,” Lumpkin said.