The ‘invisible homeless’ in Waco are losing again

By Jimmy Dorrell

With the previously rumored and publicly unannounced closing of the Oak Lodge Motel, based on a desire “to make our city better,” those who live on the edges are about to lose even more access to affordable housing and will likely move into worse conditions. While I realize it is hard to defend this old, challenging motel complex (and other substandard hotels) due to its history, petty drugs, and crime, at this time in Waco there are almost no other choices for housing for hundreds of these “invisible homeless,” including some families with children. Some of those tenants are members of Church Under the Bridge, who attend weekly.

Oak Lodge Motel

I know our city leaders and some community members care about the poor and may even acknowledge the growing lack of affordable housing in Waco for them. The lack of living wages at work in Waco contributes to their inability to rent housing. Most likely these discussions will not produce any viable answers for years that address the current and growing glut of options for Waco’s most vulnerable.

It is a crisis, not just a problem. It will only get worse for them in the months ahead. 

While Church Under the Bridge has recently initiated a new ministry to focus more on that very population, we also have few housing resources to help. Our first ministry goal is to build deeper relationships with the families and individuals and walk with them through their current plight, yet we are realistic to know there are fewer resources that really address the bigger issues of housing them in Waco. It is a community problem that demands increased attention and even interim answers.

I challenge the churches and caring community to make every effort at your disposal to save these and create new housing options before they are evicted onto our streets. I also encourage you to discourage the removal of these who will be displaced until each of them has adequate housing.

Mohandas Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest members.” That goes for cities, as well.

We commit to pray for our leaders and local churches as you struggle with these challenging issues and for the poor!

Here are some articles that may help highlight the challenge in our community:

“The People Staying and Living In America’s Hotels”     

“America’s Hidden Homeless”:

Jimmy Dorrell is pastor of Church Under the Bridge in Waco and founder of Mission Waco.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email Ferrell Foster at [email protected].

Jill McCall helps homeless in Waco find compassion

Editor: In honor of Women’s History Month, we are featuring interviews with local women leaders. These pieces were written by Baylor University students from the Department of Journalism, Public Relations, and New Media.

By Arden Huston

There are people in Waco who need a little more love, understanding, and compassion. It’s time we not only feel their pain but also be moved to help relieve it. We need to give the homeless a little more compassion.

Jill McCall of Compassion Waco

Compassion Waco is working to do that. Compassion is a transitional housing facility for homeless families with children where families can stay up to six months or a year until they learn effective ways to live on their own.

“I don’t know that I had a passion for Compassion when I came, because my image of the homeless was the guy on the street corner who needs a bath and a shave. But I now understand who we serve here is not necessarily that demographic,” Jill McCall, executive director of Compassion Waco, said.

Compassion Waco focuses on serving a specific demographic, which includes families and children. McCall mentioned how it’s important to consider the average age of the homeless in the United States today is 11 and 57% of the homeless are women and children.

“There certainly are those guys on the end of the street corner, but they’re not the majority of the homeless, and they’re not the homeless we serve here in Waco” at Compassion, McCall said.

McCall also shared that her father died when she was 4 and her mother had three kids to take care of. At the time, her mother was lucky enough to have the support of an extended family that was able to assist her emotionally and financially.

Then one day it hit her. “I could have been a child of Compassion, had my mother not had those things and had there been a Compassion, because there wasn’t one then,” McCall said.

When you put things into perspective in this way it’s easier to sympathize with the homeless. The reason many people become homeless is because of a lack of support and financial understanding.

“I think we all can agree most of us get out of high school or college and most of the time we haven’t been very accountable with our money. I mean we’ve never been made to be,” McCall said.

This is a common reason for homelessness. People that come to Compassion often haven’t had anyone to teach them how to budget their money, and they come to learn just that.

“People have to want the help; they have to be at that point in their lives where they’re ready to accept that help. Sometimes people are too proud to accept it,” McCall said.

Compassion has a variety of volunteer opportunities for people who want to help, especially those who like working with kids. They are always in need of people to provide after school care and monitor the children in the computer room.

McCall mentioned a challenge of the job is not being able to see the people while they’re on the other side of things, when they’ve gotten their lives together and aren’t in need of help anymore.

She cites a popular proverb of uncertain origin. “We are planting trees knowing full well, we will never see the shade,” McCall said. “That, on the other hand, says the shade will come. We may not see it, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that they find the shade.”

Arden Huston is a sophomore at Baylor University from Houston double majoring in psychology and professional writing.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email Ferrell Foster at [email protected].

Unwrapping a Basic Understanding of Veteran Homelessness

by Phil York, Act Locally Waco Housing and Homelessness Policy blogger

“It is simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our nation’s Veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country”  – President Obama, June 18, 2009.

Who is your favorite superhero?

It seems like the silver screen is flush with superhero smash hits every summer. Batman, with his man cave and great car, is my second favorite superhero. But before I was acquainted with Warner Brothers and Marvel Comics, my first favorite superhero was (and continues to be) my Father. Like all other superheroes, my Dad wore a superhero suit (his uniform), and in my eyes, saved the world each day during his career in the United States Navy.

In my previous posts we have discussed the broad implications of homelessness and how homelessness affects our community, our economy and our youth. Today we will unwrap a basic understanding of homelessness among Veterans: Our American Heroes.

National Policy

The Obama Administration publically calls housing a basic human right. The flagship federal agency for housing initiatives, policy, and public funding related to housing is Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under the leadership of Secretary Shaun Donovan, HUD and many other agencies partner so we can do more about homelessness through a holistic approach. That collaborative group is called The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). It is an independent agency comprised of 19 Cabinet Secretaries and agency heads that coordinate responses to homelessness. HUD, USDA, Department of Veteran Affairs, Social Security Administration, and Department of Homeland Security are just a few of the partner agencies involved.

This interagency collaboration is mandated by The Hearth Act (signed into law by President Obama May 2009). President Obama’s Opening Doors Plan (drafted in 2010), is the United States’ first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness. The Plan is focused on four key goals: (1) Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years; (2) Prevent and end homelessness among Veterans in five years; (3) Prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children in ten years; and (4) Set a path to ending all types of homelessness. USICH uses this plan to guide program implementation.

How are we doing?

Here is a timeline of the progress that has been reported regarding homeless Veterans:

2009 – According to President Obama’s plan document (p. 20), in 2009, the VA estimated 107,000 homeless Veterans on any given night.

2010 – According to Green Doors, a central Texas nonprofit corporation and a Veteran advocacy group, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimated that on any given night there were 76,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets.

2011 – On December 13, 2011, HUD released the 2011 Point-In-Time Count Report that showed there were 67,495 homeless veterans in the United States (including sheltered and unsheltered). Among those reported were 1,500 in Texas, and 40 in Waco/McLennan County.

2012 – According to Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time Survey, January 2012, 62,619 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2012. Texas had by far the largest number of homeless veterans among statewide counts with 1,481 homeless veterans on a single night.

2013 – HUD’s “2013 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations Report” states the count of homeless veterans (sheltered and unsheltered) as 58,063. According to a blog post by Secretary Donovan on December 2013, “The numbers since 2010 when Opening Doors was created are encouraging… homelessness among Veterans fell an incredible 24 percent.” He credits this improvement to the strong working partnership between HUD and Veterans’ Affairs and to a commitment to learning from evidence-based research.

A lot left to Un-Wrap

The most common metric in homelessness policy is the Point-In-Time Count. Most communities conduct a Point-In-Time count once a year, usually in January. It counts people who are unsheltered or in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Families, youth, and other individuals who are doubled up are not included. The Point-in-Time Count may be the best we can do as far as measuring homelessness, but it is far from perfect.

When I served as a Point-In-Time surveyor in Brazos County, “are you a Veteran?” was a question on the verbal survey. There are several important things to consider about that question:

  • The survey itself is voluntary
  • This specific question is a voluntary, self-selected answer
  • Depending on its place in the survey order, it may not be asked before the participant elects to end the conversation
  • The participant needs to trust the surveyor; without trust little information can be collected.

Given the flaws of the Point-In-Time Survey that several of our sources identify, I am reluctant to share HUD’s rosy estimate of the progress that has been made. I agree that the data from multiple sources supports the conclusion that we have made at least some steps in the right direction; the question remains of how large those steps have been.

I say that not to be pessimistic about our progress, but to make sure we complete the race before we celebrate its end. If data points are used to judge success or failure of our agencies we need to know as informed citizens the nature of that data. The data collection challenge is a reoccurring theme across all topics and demographics of homelessness. It is worth describing in each blog as it affects each group uniquely.

One uniform opinion across data sources is that the true number of homeless veterans is more than likely higher than the estimate. Much work remains to be accomplished with this important population. Considering their sacrifice, our Veterans and their families remain our heroes long after they retire their uniforms. I look forward to our next discussion about this important topic.

Phil 2Phil York, Director of Development at Waco Habitat for Humanity, is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to [email protected].  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email [email protected]



“Unwrapping” a basic understanding of Child Homelessness

by Phil York, Act Locally Waco Housing and Homelessness Policy blogger

The previous months welcomed the annual holiday season. Some of us spent time unwrapping gifts with high anticipation for what would be revealed underneath the glitter and flashy paper. In one of our previous posts we talked about the rise of homelessness among a few specific demographic groups. Today we will start to “unwrap” one of those groups as we learn a bit more about homelessness among children. The Charles A. Dana Center of The University of Texas reports that “over a course of a year, between 2.3 and 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the United States, of which between 900,000 and 1.4 million will be children.”

Unfortunately, any conversation about homelessness must depend on ranges or estimates. As you might imagine, the very nature of homelessness makes it difficult to accurately count the people who are experiencing that situation. It is particularly challenging to get an accurate count of our homeless children and youth because the federal definition of “homelessness” as it applies to children is quite complex.

Children are considered homeless if they:

  • Are abandoned in hospitals.
  • Are awaiting foster-care placement.
  • Are living in environments not intended for habitation such as cars, parks, motels, public spaces, train stations.
  • Are living in substandard housing.
  • Are living in transitional housing.
  • Are sharing housing of others because of loss of housing, economic hardship.
  • Are displaced by a natural disaster.
  • Are fleeing a domestic abuse situation.
  • Are living temporarily with a relative in another town because a parent is hospitalized for illness or surgery.
  • Are immigrant students living in a homeless situation, without regard to whether they are in the US legally or illegally.

As you can see, child homelessness is more difficult to define than it might at first appear. This makes it even more difficult to observe. For example, a third grade student in WISD might technically have a roof over her head for the night, yet still suffer from inadequate housing. She would not be counted in a “point in time” count of those living on the street, but she is still considered homeless by the federal definition. Despite this complicated definition, thanks to the diligent work of the Homeless Outreach Services at WISD and the City of Waco we are able to estimate the number of homeless children in Waco ISD. That number, according to a May 2013 report by KXXV news is right around 1,500.

This definition of child homelessness is codified in a law called the McKinny-Vento Act. This law provides protections to youth that fall under the definition of homelessness and who are 21 and under (or until high school graduation in some states). Each school district is required by law to have a McKinny-Vento specialist available on staff to serve, protect and preserve the rights of homeless students. The specialist’s duties include:

  • Identification of homeless children.
  • Ensuring that homeless children enroll in and have a fair opportunity to succeed in school.
  • Making referrals to health care, dental, mental health and other appropriate services.
  • Informing parents and guardians of the educational and related opportunities available to their children and provide them with meaningful opportunities to participate in that education.
  • Disseminating public notice of educational rights.
  • Informing families and youth about transportation services and assisting them in accessing transportation.

The McKinny-Vento specialist for Waco ISD is Cheryl Pooler. She shared some insights about her work in a 2013 interview with KWBU. In the interview, Ms. Pooler described the difficulty of the first duty of her post: simply identifying students who may be eligible for programs.

National, state and local realities compel policy such as the McKinny-Vento Act which broadens the definition of homelessness among youth. This is important because homelessness is a complex issue that cannot be addressed without definitions and policies that are flexible enough to meet the complexity. But with complexity comes bureaucracy, including the documentation obstacles Ms. Pooler described in her interview.

The McKinny-Vento Act is not a simple piece of legislation. The definition of homelessness for children is not simple. Even the most basic task of figuring out how many homeless children we have in Waco is not simple. Perhaps we should let all of this legal complexity serve to remind us that life as a homeless child is certainly not simple. Consider for a moment how difficult it would be for a child experiencing any of the situations enumerated in the federal definition of homelessness to focus on school work.

“Unwrapping” the challenge of child homelessness is not a simple endeavor. Much more remains to be unwrapped. We will continue to unwrap homelessness, understand its scope and the policies around it in future posts.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to [email protected].  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email [email protected]



Understanding the Definition of “Homelessness”

by Phil York

Days ago, Oxford Dictionary accepted the popular term, “selfie” into the canon of the English language. Selfie (the act of extending your own smart phone ahead of you to take a self-portrait) is now part of our daily lexicon and day-to-day reality.

Definitions are important. They allow us to grasp our reality, place labels on items, and understand our world. This blog post will explore some of the definitions of homelessness. If we are to be informed citizens about homelessness laws, programs, and funding we need to understand how this important issue is defined.

Merriam-Webster defines homelessness as “having no place to live”. This simple description probably accurately reflects our common understanding of the issue, but it does not capture the variety of ways a person or family may experience homelessness. If we are going to work toward effective solutions, we need a more in depth understanding.

For example, in 2009, The City of Waco, along with a coalition of nonprofits and civic-minded leaders took steps to define and understand the long-term impact of one particular kind of homelessness, called “chronic homelessness. ” Chronic homelessness tends to be the kind of homelessness that is the most visible on our streets. Between 2008 and 2009, this group developed a report called “Opening Doors, Unlocking Potential: The Mayor’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.” As the basis of this work, they used the federal government’s definition of chronic homelessness which, at that time, was the following: “an unaccompanied individual who has been homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, and who may be disabled by addiction, mental illness or other disabilities.” (Note: In that report, the City estimated the cost of the chronically homeless to be $39,000 per year, per individual).

Chronic homelessness, while probably the most visible and the most expensive form of homelessness, is just one piece of the homelessness puzzle. It represents only a small percentage of all the individuals who are defined as “homeless” in our community. The United States Congress in conjunction with a few federal agencies collectively have different, and often overlapping, definitions for homelessness that are quite broad and may include populations we may not immediately recognize as homeless. For example, some people are considered homeless even though they technically have a roof over their head at night, if that roof is only temporary. In 2008 the US Congress defined a homeless person as “an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a temporary accommodation for not more than 90 days in the residence of another individual.” This definition includes coach surfers and others who may be housed by friends and family for a period of time.

The definition of homelessness used by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) includes four main categories:

  • Individuals and families that do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence or who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation”.
  • Individuals and families who are on the verge of losing their primary nighttime residence.
  • Unaccompanied youth.
  • Individuals and families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence or other dangerous life-threatening conditions.

Children are defined by several federal agencies as homeless if they:

  • Live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations.
  • Live in emergency or transitional shelters.
  • Await foster care placement.
  • Live in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations or similar settings.

homelessness by age chart


All these definitions can make it a challenge to pin down the demographics of homelessness, but according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 46% of the nation’s homeless are younger than the age of 30; 22% are under the age of 18. This large percentage may be why our federal leadership moved to include children as a separate homeless category. Homeless children are a particular concern in Waco. According to recent estimates 1,500 children in WISD are considered homeless. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a child to concentrate on school work while couch surfing or living in a shelter or camping out at a park.

Homelessness affects our social and economic fabric on the national, state and local scale. You may have been surprised to learn how broadly homelessness is defined in our country and that it includes individuals who are technically living under roofs, foster children, substandard housing residents, couch surfers, shelter attendees and those fleeing domestic assault. These definitions become significant on the local level as nonprofits, churches and private organizations work with federal, state and local programs to qualify individuals for homeless programs and services.

Hopefully a more in depth understanding of the definition of homelessness will help you have a little context for what you hear about homelessness on the news or the radio. It’s important for all of us to understand these definitions as we participate as citizens in discussions about budget amendments and policy changes, and especially as we cast our ballots. If you were to take a selfie now, you would capture a more informed Wacoan. I hope to build on our collective knowledge with each blog post.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to [email protected].  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email [email protected]


Why should we care about housing and homelessness?

With this post Act Locally Waco introduces Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity. A self-described “policy nerd,” Phil has agreed to a stint as ALW’s housing and homelessness policy blogger. Welcome aboard, Phil! We are looking forward to your insights on this crucial element in making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income!

Policy briefings, lobbyist meetings, and picket lines…this is the typical landscape we see and hear in the headlines of Washington. They all seem to be actions from a distant planet with unknown implications on our day-to-day lives. This blog series is designed to make federal housing and homelessness policy less alien and more accessible, and to explain what effect these important policies have on Waco, Texas.

But…why should we care?

york_phil2 (2)In graduate school, I had a professor who asked this question at the end of each student’s graduation thesis. Needless to say this is a question that is so fundamental that it feels like a punch to the gut after you are finished an important speech. But the question is worth asking with any social issue. Wacoans should care about housing and homelessness because of the social and economic impact these issues have in our community.

For example, consider the impact of homelessness on our children and youth. Homelessness is a growing problem among families, particularly families with children. If youth are subject to homelessness they are also subject to health hazards that are easily acquired by living on the streets such as communicable diseases . Also, children experiencing homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as non-homeless children .

Sadly, Youth are a growing demographic among America’s homeless. Nationwide, homelessness among K-12 age students saw a 10 percent rise from 1,065,794 to 1,168,354 . According to the US Department of Education, the Lone Star state is third among the top 10 states with the number of homeless students. Texas accounts for 94,624 homeless enrolled students; this represents an 11% increase between 2011-2012 .

These children are our future workers and leaders. The current social impact is clear, and we would also be wise to consider the long term economic impact of a future workforce that has not been able to study in a safe environment, a future workforce that is vulnerable to weather and disease. These deprivations during childhood can have a lasting negative impact on a person’s ability to get the education necessary to find a good-paying job. This in turn has a negative impact on the economic health of the whole community.

In addition to this kind of long term social impact, the immediate economic impact of homelessness is clear. A 2007 video produced by the City of Waco shows that the cost per chronically homeless person in Waco is $39,000. Approximately 15% of homeless population is chronically, or persistently, homeless. This 15% of the homeless population uses 50% of homeless services. The total cost of homelessness to our community is estimated at more than $7.6 million. Shelters, emergency rooms, police and correctional facilities are among the tax-funded programs used. One possible approach to this challenge is Permanent Supportive Housing. This kind of housing approach could potentially cut the cost of helping these chronically homeless individuals. Once chronically homeless individuals are housed, this could free up resources to help reduce episodic homelessness.

Affordable housing and a thoughtful approach to homelessness issues will have an impact on the current and future health of Waco. Housing has a direct tie to education, health, and the economic prosperity of our community. We should care about housing because it is critical.

The stakes are high. Familiarity with policies that drive local programs can help us actively participate in the continued improvement of our community.

I look forward to learning with you. Regards, Phil York.