Downing

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

The man spotted his wife through the large glass doors and windows inside the front of the building. Kept locked, the doors open only at a signal from the front desk. That didn't prove to be much of a deterrent on October 3 around 6 p.m. Corey Harrell Cruise, authorities say, pulled a pistol, shot out the glass and stepped through it. His wife ran. Cruise ran after her, firing, observers say. Fortunately for the other people who were there, most fortunately for his wife, Cruise ran out of bullets. He came up empty just as he cornered her in the cafeteria -- the cafeteria with the skylights and the ceiling fans and the hanging Christian banner.

No one was hit. No one was killed. But any idea that the Star of Hope Women and Family Emergency Shelter could be a completely safe haven from the world's violence had gone the way of the shattered glass.

"The openness and the high visibility of things were so people wouldn't have the feeling of being in an institution," says Marilyn Fountain, Star of Hope spokeswoman. "It's a sad irony that this event is going to create a different visual here."

She is concerned about the wife who was the intended target. She is also concerned about the "troubled" husband who surrendered at a local psychiatric center.

You see, Corey Harrell Cruise knew how to reach his estranged wife, knew the layout of the land, because he was a Star of Hope client, too. He lived there.


Most people call it the Star of Hope women's shelter. And people who haven't visited it don't realize the facility at 419 Dowling doesn't take in just women, but their children and husbands, too. So, unlike an abused women's shelter that would be on full alert if a man who was not on staff tried to get in, the Star of Hope women's shelter employees wouldn't.

The number of homeless is growing. When Star of Hope started with its men's facility in 1907, Fountain says, "We didn't have women on the street. We didn't have women being abandoned." But by the mid-1980s, women and their children were showing up in increasing numbers asking for help at the men's shelter, she says. Also at that time the Houston media was giving a lot of coverage to the tent cities that sprang up around town. It was sort of a romantic image -- people cooking out around a campfire, braving the elements just like the early pioneers. The early romanticism, the "Us against the System" ethos shortly devolved into something uglier, weighed down by the mountains of garbage that started piling up and the picture of raggedy people facing winter in the Houston elements.

That's when Star of Hope decided to expand its mission. It opened the women's shelter in 1989. And found a somewhat different clientele.

A man or family that falls on hard times usually comes to a shelter with some possessions, Fountain says. But abused women come in with the clothes on their backs, with their children, and little else.

For children and especially teenagers, the stigma attached to shelters can be overwhelming. How'd you like your prom date to pick you up at the homeless shelter? Most kids, Fountain says, never invite friends over.

But there are pluses for children. They are getting fed. They are clothed and warm. Star of Hope works with families to get the kids enrolled in school immediately. It gets them school uniforms and new backpacks, so no one can look at them in school and immediately say hey, there's a homeless kid. They don't have to worry where they're sleeping the next night. And there are sometimes extensions beyond the 30-day limit. In cases of abuse, that danger has been removed. They receive medical care. They get counseling. For those who welcome it, the Christian framework offers comfort and definition to chaotic lives. Lives become less desperate. They can survive. And there are success stories.

Most people think the average homeless person is a man in his twenties or thirties, Fountain says. "The reality is the average homeless person is a child, nine years of age."


A stop at a homeless shelter is a last resort, Fountain says. People move from place to place, in with friends and relatives, anywhere they can find before they come to a shelter.

For some even the security of a clean place to stay and food can't make up for the fact that they must go to their rooms at 10 p.m. Some can't accept the ubiquitous messages of Christianity in places like Star of Hope. Still, Star of Hope doesn't go out recruiting clients. The people come to it.

Qualifying for one of Star of Hope's two emergency shelters isn't tough. "You can come in right off the street and declare your crisis, and we'll see to your needs," Fountain says.

She calls the shooting break-in an isolated incident, but hurries to say that in no way does that mean shelter officials are taking it lightly. "We live in times that catch us by surprise in terms of the way people behave and express their emotions."

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.

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 margaret_downing@houstonpress.com.

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