Survival Skills. The Star of Hope women's shelter puts on a new face in the wake of a shooting attack

Tell her how lucky the center was that no children, women or men were injured in this incident, and she politely but firmly disagrees. "The hand of God is on Star of Hope, and he has protected us. This goes beyond luck to me. This feels to me like protection."

Houston police officers carry referral cards to local shelters, handing them out when they see people in trouble, says Captain Dale Brown with the Houston Police Department special operations task force in the central business district.
Fountain's help once steered a woman from possible suicide.
Fountain's help once steered a woman from possible suicide.

Officers will provide transportation to anyone who wants to go to a shelter. If they spot someone sleeping on the street, officers are instructed to see if the person is okay and whether he or she wants to go anywhere. Many do not, Brown says.

"Street people don't want to stay in shelters. They're not the same as a homeless person. A homeless person is someone looking for a home. Street people only go to the shelters for a particular service like a meal or when it's cold." Then they scoot out the door, he says.

One issue for the central business district has been various churches coming to parks in the area, particularly on weekends, to hand out food from a curb, Brown says. Trash gets left behind, and other people who'd like to use the park don't feel comfortable, he says. And, he says, by handing out food -- for all the best reasons -- these groups are in effect enabling people to survive out on the streets, without learning job skills or changing their behavior.

As a result, tension has grown between central business district residents and developers and street people and the groups attempting to help them, Brown says.

Star of Hope offers a pragmatic brand of Christianity. As Fountain puts it: "You can't just give people food and a bed, if you're going to effect change. The intent is not that you just come and languish in your situation. You work with Star of Hope."

The center offers job training if people sign on for the program at the Transitional Living Center for a year. They teach parenting skills, basic nutrition and social skills for dysfunctional families. They celebrate victories large and small with awards and graduation ceremonies. They try to arm people with enough self-esteem and knowledge to venture out into the world again on their own.

Winter is coming on. The shelters need warm clothes for the children and adults passing through the emergency facilities.

Star of Hope receives U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money because it houses people. It gets United Way money, and it counts on grants, endowments and donations to fill in the rest.

It's the filling-in part that's an intense year-round effort. A recent trip to the women's shelter showed food shelves with little on them. Each day Star of Hope serves 900 meals to the people at the women's shelter. They need money and food donations. They need meat. They need over-the-counter cold and flu medications, Tylenol, Pedialyte for the babies, spring water for the babies' formulas. The list is long and without frivolity.

There are an estimated 10,000 homeless in Houston, and last year Star of Hope served more than 5,100 of them, Fountain says. There aren't always beds available. She talks of a woman who came to the Transitional Living Center for help, a woman whose desperation tugged at Fountain as she was going out the door at the end of the day. Fountain turned back, talked with the woman and called repeatedly to the women's shelter, until a bed opened up. A few days later, the woman told Fountain she'd been thinking of committing suicide, and might have done it if Fountain hadn't found a place for her. Fountain believes she was God's instrument.

Star of Hope doesn't want anyone to hesitate about going there. So, post-shooting incident, it's making changes, walling in its glass, putting in security monitors. Till the end of this month the women's shelter remains under police surveillance.

There is something sad and disquieting about the walls going into the women's shelter that will further separate these families from the rest of Houston. The idea produces the same kind of mixed feelings as the effort to get the homeless off the streets with ordinances barring panhandling, sitting or lying on sidewalks and rummaging through trash containers. How neat and tidy do we need to be to feel safe? Will this guarantee the revitalization of downtown? Will God always be there with that tug on someone's conscience to turn back and listen to a distraught soul looking for a place to land? Will there be enough beds available even if he or she listens?

I don't know. I don't know if anyone knows. I do know that Marilyn Fountain and many others working at Star of Hope have made a covenant to try to help people fix their brokenness. And that's both a pretty good start on the road to glory and more than most of us will ever do.

E-mail Margaret Downing at

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