Stretched to the Limits

At the Star of Hope shelter on the northern edge of downtown, 450 men a night are vying for the facility's 220 beds.

Those who miss out on the beds sleep on chairs and floor mats spread out in the shelter's dayroom. The overcrowding turns away many men, some of whom say they prefer the street to being packed in with so many strangers.

Houston's oldest homeless service agency is facing a 49 percent increase in demands for services since 1998 and is $500,000 over budget, according to shelter employees.

The increase in demand is not limited to the Star of Hope's men's shelter; the organization's family and women's shelters report a surge in babies (a record 30 last year) and women suffering from depression (30 percent last year, the first significant percentage the agency recorded).

The financial crunch necessitated a hiring freeze, but the men's shelter still employs 65 staff members to offer job training, psychological evaluations and health care. The shelter recently started a Homeless Anonymous program, which director Gary Brown says is successful for some men in developing an "ethics system" and avoiding blaming others for their problems, thereby hastening their recovery.

Other agencies are also reporting unprecedented demands for services.

On the southern edge of downtown, SEARCH has seen a 40 percent increase in clients since roughly 1998, according to executive director Sandy Kesseler. Last year, the agency helped 413 children, including 11 who were sleeping in bus stations, abandoned buildings or on the street. That was the first time in the agency's seven-year history that it encountered children sleeping on the streets, Kesseler says.

Budget constraints have forced SEARCH to reduce its day shelter program from seven days down to five, although the agency has been able to keep its 113 subsidized single-room occupancy units.

SEARCH also has maintained its mobile outreach unit, which consists of staff and volunteers who travel the city in a van, distributing food and conducting brief medical intakes. The unit also tries to get military pensions to homeless veterans. Don Hall, who heads the unit, says he sees about 200 new homeless individuals a month. -- Craig Malisow

 
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