Growing up as a teenager at Fort Worth’s Presbyterian Night Shelter, Victoria Kaelin's life was different from those of most kids.
She and her sister took turns showering so they could hold towels over the clear shower curtains in the dorm-style bathroom. Kaelin slept with her Dr Pepper, just to make sure no one would steal it. She loved getting sick because her mom would give her cough syrup and she could sleep despite the chronic snorer in the shelter.
Family dinners were a thing of the past. Privacy was nonexistent. And the stigma of homelessness was always with her.
Now, 10 years later, Kaelin has her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington and she is back at the shelter — this time as a case manager.
So when the Presbyterian Night Shelter announced plans Tuesday to build a new women and children’s shelter — which will include private rooms for families, semiprivate bathrooms and larger study and recreation spaces — she was there to celebrate both the new shelter and the role Presbyterian played in helping her succeed.
“I am excited about this new shelter because privacy is everything. When you don’t have it, you learn to appreciate the little things,” Kaelin said. “When you are 15, it is the little things that matter. With this shelter, there will be more supportive services, private rooms.”
But not everyone in the community shares her joy at the announcement of the $8.4 million shelter, for which nearly $7 million has already been raised.
‘Economic dead zone’
Doug Henderson, president of the East Fort Worth Business Association, said east Fort Worth does not need another shelter.
East Lancaster Avenue is already home to the Union Gospel Mission, Presbyterian Night Shelter and the Salvation Army, as well as many homelessness services, including MHMR of Tarrant County, the Day Resource Center and Unity Park, a place for the homeless to gather.
“It has created an economic dead zone,” Henderson said. “Property values are either stagnant or decreasing around here, and it has just been an eyesore and a burden on the east side. But nobody seems to really care.”
Wanda Conlin, an east-side leader, businesswoman and member of the Fort Worth Zoning Commission, agrees.
“It is just wrong. It is wrong to put them all there together,” Conlin said. She believes the homeless would be better served if housing were scattered throughout Fort Worth, especially for homeless women and children.
“It has impacted our neighborhood, and I am talking about East Lancaster all the way to Handley. We have the perception in this city that this is a crime-ridden, throwaway street. And it is not,” Conlin said.
Toby Owen, executive director of the Presbyterian Night Shelter, said he understands the neighborhood concerns, but the shelters are there to serve the homeless and be a good neighbor.
“This location is where all of the providers are located, and it has been that way for a very long time. This is where the homeless community goes to receive assistance,” Owen said.
He added that they have tried to mitigate problems by picking up trash twice a day year-round; hiring security guards to patrol the neighborhood; and opening Unity Park during the day to give the homeless a place to gather away from the streets and sidewalks.
Efforts paying off
Those efforts are starting to pay off, Owen said. A few businesses, including the Got You Covered uniform shop, operate right next to the shelters.
“We are beginning to see a change in the understanding of this area, to see that economic development can return to this area,” he said.
Many east-side residents and businesses tried to stop construction of a new family shelter being built by Union Gospel Mission when the project came to the Fort Worth City Council in December 2013 for a zoning variance. The community failed to stop the expansion.
“You have women and children exposed to this environment. Granted, it has gotten better down there on the safety issues, but it is still a scary place, even as an adult. I can only imagine as a kid,” Henderson said. He said he also wonders why the nonprofits build scattered housing.
Owen said that while permanent housing is the ultimate goal for homeless people, shelters are an important part of getting there.
“You have to have a front door and you have to have a back door. The front door is the emergency shelters that are the front door to get people off the streets and into a safe shelter. The back door is permanent supportive housing,” Owen said.
In 2014, the Presbyterian Night Shelter served 635 children and 305 mothers, a 67 percent increase in the number of children and a 60 percent increase in the number of mothers compared with 2013. The dorm-style shelter can’t handle the growth.
Built in 2000, the shelter first housed 12 families, said Suzy T. Rhodes, co-chairwoman of the Presbyterian Night Shelter’s Campaign for Women & Children. Today, it is housing 39 families.
The new shelter, which will be in the 1100 block of East Presidio Street, near the main shelter, will be 30,000 square feet. The money is being raised from the private sector and officials said they hope it is fully funded by January 2016.
The new building will hold 40 families and include dedicated office space for partner agencies, including Cook Children’s Medical Center, the Women’s Center of Tarrant County and the Fort Worth school district. The plan also calls for 1,000 square feet of retail space for a social enterprise business that will provide jobs, training and revenue.
With construction of the new shelter, the single women at Presbyterian’s main shelter will move to the old women and children’s shelter, for more security and privacy away from the male homeless population.
Kaelin said the shelter was instrumental in getting her family back on its feet. Case management helped her, her sister and her mother obtain jobs, budget and then find housing.
“I knew I wanted to work with the homeless population, because I know what it is like getting back up on your feet, and it is not easy. It is a process. When you fall down, you have to get back up, but sometimes it is easier to give up than it is to succeed,” Kaelin said.
Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984