Jeff Gallagher has been homeless for 36 years — but two weeks ago something clicked.
He had missed an appointment with the homelessness organization Compass to try to get some housing help. It was the same old, same old for Gallagher, an Army veteran who has been in touch with various organizations since around 2008, never quite following through on plans to get on his feet with a roof over his head. But this time was different: When Gallagher didn't show, other volunteers came looking for him. They scheduled another appointment for him at the Beacon homeless shelter this week. He came.
And so did between 100 and 200 other chronically homeless people living on the streets in Houston.
On Tuesday, 20 local homeless service providers and agencies helped Gallagher and dozens of others get approved for subsidized housing on the spot, connecting them with volunteers who will help each of them search for available apartments within the next few days. For Gallagher, it was the first time in more than 30 years that he believed he had a shot to start over.
“I'm not one of the best Christians in the world, but I am a believer. And I believe this: All of this is telling me, Jeff, put that stuff behind you, and keep going,” he said, gesturing to the dozens of volunteers assisting the homeless nearby. “They've opened up the door, and I finally am not gonna shut it anymore.”
Eva Thibaudeau, director of programs at the Coalition for the Homeless, said the initiative was launched as a way to expedite the housing process for 200 of the most vulnerable homeless people currently on the waiting list and who qualify for housing services. These are homeless people who have been on the streets the longest, who suffer from disabilities or serious mental illness and are, in some cases, living in life-threatening conditions. “The bottom line is looking at who the most vulnerable people on the streets are, because remaining homeless is not going to contribute to better health,” Thibaudeau said. “In many cases, it's literally about saving lives by getting people into housing and health care.”
Before Tuesday's initiative, if people did not have identification, proof of disability or proof of low income — as the federal government requires for subsidized homeless housing — they would get snagged in a lengthy bureaucratic process, having to visit various government offices to obtain the documents before often just giving up. But on Tuesday, all those various agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and the VA, were on site to assist people immediately. Thibaudeau said she had been trying to help one woman who showed up Tuesday for the past 12 years. The woman, severely mentally ill and in a wheelchair, had never had the wherewithal to always fully complete the housing process, usually disappearing right before all the paperwork was finished. It finally came together yesterday.
“When I saw that she came today and made it through every station, and finally got connected to a housing provider...just...tears. Tears,” Thibaudeau said. “I have chills. I can't describe how much this means. I would run into her in various places and sometimes she'd try to hide. I would say, 'It's okay, it's okay if you didn't come back. I'm always here.' To see this many people come together and make this kind of difference for someone, that's life-changing.”
The large outreach event was part of The Way Home Initiative, Houston's push to end homelessness. Since 2011, the City of Houston has housed more than 3,300 chronically homeless people and more than 4,920 homeless veterans, and since taking office Mayor Sylvester Turner has made housing the homeless a top priority.
Even Gallagher has noticed.
“I been in Houston since '04, when we had Bill White talking, saying, 'Oh, I'm gonna do this for the homeless' — he didn't do nothin'," Gallagher said. "Then we had [Annise Parker] in there, saying, 'Oh, I'm doing this for 'em!' Didn't do nada. This dude right here, I don't know his name, but the mayor right now, he's doing stuff for us — that's why all of this is happening.”
Gallagher, known on the streets as “Shaggy” because of his long, scraggly beard, said it was the volunteers' persistence that finally convinced him to get help.
He became homeless in 1981 after returning from a three-year stint in the Army, then leaving home to escape family troubles. He fell into drinking and drugs, and simply never seemed to be able to pull himself out of the haze. Gallagher, wearing an old Army camouflage jacket, was forthcoming about his trips in and out of the pen for getting caught with dope. During one trip to prison, his younger sister had died of a brain tumor. He didn't know until two years later.
“The way I look at it, well, I'm tired,” Gallagher said. “It's just tiring. I've been on the streets since I was 21 years old. I'm 56 now. I just finally made up my mind that I'm done. I mean, look at me. People that know me, like [SEARCH Homeless Services worker] Jess [DiManno] and some other [volunteers], they say, 'You're better than that.' Well, I finally started listening.”
Gallagher, who suffers from bipolar disorder, said he credits DiManno with “saving him.” He was impressed to find Tuesday that DiManno still had his birth certificate saved on her computer from when he first met her more than two years ago, when Jess began trying to convince Gallagher to accept housing. He said she had been helping him obtain substance abuse help, too.
On Tuesday, he planned to go to the Salvation Army for a shower, to get clean clothes and to shave his beard. By his birthday, May 2, he plans to be moved into an apartment and hunting for work.
“If they think I can, then why can't I?” he said, referencing the volunteers. “They've got to see something in me. They have to.”