For 18 years, the founder of H.O.P.E. Haven, Kristyn Stillwell, used to help the homeless by feeding them once a year on Thanksgiving Day with her husband and children, until a pivotal moment in 2009 turned the annual event into a career.

Stillwell’s family had stopped to give food to a homeless person at Hwy. 249 and Spring Cypress Road, but when the man took the dinner, she realized she recognized him.

“He was sitting there two years ago, in the same spot,” Stillwell said. “I flipped out. I started crying.”

Stillwell started a ministry to help the homeless six years ago and in that time helped 70 people get off the streets.

“When we first met with the people on the street, they would ask for shoes and blue jeans, and after a while they started trusting us and asked us to help them reconcile with family and get identification. Once they trust you, they’re willing to let you in and let you help them,” she said.

Stillwell developed her passion into founding the nonprofit organization H.O.P.E. Haven in 2015. H.O.P.E. stands for Helping Others Pursue Excellence.

H.O.P.E. Haven, which works extensively with Harris County Sheriff’s Office Homeless Outreach Team, helps the homeless through a series of steps, starting with identifying whether an individual has psychological issues or substance-abuse problems, and then beginning the process from homelessness to independent living.

In the first year of operation, H.O.P.E. Haven helped get 93 people off the streets, Stillwell said.

The nonprofit incorporates a unique approach in that it “plants seeds of hope.” If homeless are given a reason and purpose to change their circumstances, then the success rate is higher, Stillwell said.

“We get them to get a job that can sustain them and give them life skills,” she said.

As soon as individuals are helped, H.O.P.E. Haven expects them to become part of the program’s “success community,” which offers mentorships to others who are in homeless situations. Three mentors provide career, financial and inspirational assistance. One mentorship is specialized, such as pairing a victim of post traumatic stress disorder with a veteran, Stillwell said.

A H.O.P.E. Haven campaign, “Be the change; don’t give change,” is designed to eradicate panhandling and targets areas between I-45 and Hwy. 249 from FM 1960 up to Spring Cypress Road.

Stillwell said the efforts of the campaign are centered around educating the public on what panhandlers do with the money they have collected.

“The first $6 goes to cigarettes, and the next $9 goes to vodka and beer,” she said. “If they get any more, they’re going to do their drug of choice.”

She said charitable food sources are plentiful, and money collected by panhandling is rarely used for food.

The Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce hosted a gala Jan. 28 in which proceeds were donated to H.O.P.E. Haven’s campaign.

The HNWCC Safety and Security Task Force board has committed to reduce panhandling by supporting H.O.P.E.’s campaign, HNWCC President Barbara Thomason said.

“We see their work as an important means and a humane way to address homelessness and panhandling in our community,” she said.

Stillwell said the nonprofit’s slogan is “Make lasting change in people’s life.”

“One hundred years from now, I want H.O.P.E. Haven to be strong and sustainable,” she said.

H.O.P.E Haven

14511 Falling Creek Drive, Houston