Stimulus Money: How To Stop Homelessness In Houston Before It Happens

When Lorenzo Timmons was hurt and out of work last summer, and finally ran out of money to pay the rent, he had little choice but the unthinkable: to gather his wife, daughter and whatever he could carry and move his family into a homeless shelter. The Houston Press reported in a cover story early this year (People Like Us, March 19) that the specter of previously stable, working families falling into homelessness was becoming increasingly common in Houston -- and that there were few options for help.

A block of stimulus money was allocated in February to address the problem. Since then, the under-equipped charities that shoulder the burden in Houston have been anxiously waiting for the funds to arrive. And the wait has been a nervous one.

Gerald Eckert, the social services manager at the Salvation Army who in March called the economic crisis a "double whammy" -- increasing the demand for homeless services while driving down the donations that largely support them -- says need has snowballed since March.

"The shelters are always full," Eckert tells Hair Balls. "This is the chronic problem for Houston -- we don't have enough beds to go around. And especially with families."

Last month the stimulus money finally arrived.

It is earmarked for exactly the kind of homeless services that Houston notably lacks: helping people and families get quickly out of the shelter system -- which Eckert, like most experts, says only stabilizes them in homelessness -- and, more importantly, keeping them from becoming homeless in the first place. The new program can help families bridge the gap from one job to the next with up to six months of rent and utility assistance, as well as provide case workers to help navigate the Byzantine social service system.

"This is homelessness prevention, which is really the piece of the puzzle of homelessness in Houston that's never existed before," Eckert says.

Eckert says that the Salvation Army's program has kept about a dozen families from homelessness since it began on September 1. It has received about $1 million of the stimulus funds. Other agencies, such as SEARCH, are also initiating new programs with the funds.

Adding to the problem has been landlords abruptly foreclosing or selling their properties, leaving tenants who are already stretched thin without a place to stay or the means to relocate, and with as little as two weeks to figure things out.

Mamie McGowan, a full-time human resources worker in Houston with two children in college, says she was bracing for homelessness last month after her landlord gave her two weeks to leave. She found out about the new program through a friend, and within a week was in a patio home in a quiet complex where she'll feel comfortable retiring once her kids finish school.

"I didn't really have any other alternative," she says. "So I probably would have been crowded up with a relative ... or on the street."

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