Fort Worth

Homelessness in Fort Worth a cycle of despair, frustration

It’s 7 a.m. and Tammy Farnsworth is up, straightening her red hair with the help of a friend.

She’ll soon be leaving the Presbyterian Night Shelter for her job at a sandwich shop before returning for another night in the homeless district.

Looking at her mirror, adorned with pictures of her baby granddaughter and inspirational quotes from Joel Osteen on colorful notecards, Farnsworth shares her reason for being at the shelter.

She is not unemployed, disabled or addicted to drugs or alcohol. But Farnsworth is nonetheless homeless, living day to day with thousands of others who have landed hard on rock-bottom row.

“I want more out of life than just settling for this,” she said, scanning rows of bunk-bed-style cots that fill the shelter.

Just over a year ago, the 50-year-old woman was living in an Arlington apartment and had a job, a car — a decent life, she said. Then her ex-husband stopped supplementing her income, leaving her struggling to pay the bills. She got caught trying to steal something from a department store and lost her job and apartment, completing her descent into desperation.

The Presbyterian Night Shelter, which serves 625 men, women and children daily, was her best option — some might suggest her only option.

“I’ll be honest: I was petrified,” said Farnsworth, describing the day she walked into the shelter, dragging all her belongings in two suitcases. “… It was pouring down rain and I’m talking pouring. I was drenched from head to toe and clueless.”

She had become one of the more than 5,200 people homeless in Fort Worth each year, many of whom call the area on and around East Lancaster Avenue home.

In many ways, the homeless district, on the outskirts of downtown, has become its own little city, complete with places to eat, sleep, worship, receive healthcare and seek employment. There’s even a park where the homeless gather daily, mostly to kill time.

But what separates the homeless district from other communities in Tarrant County is that no one organization is in charge. Tarrant County, MHMR Tarrant County, Fort Worth, the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, John Peter Smith Hospital, churches and nonprofits all share a role in the daily operation of the district.

The agencies addressing homelessness — like the Fort Worth Housing Authority and the shelters —bring in about $190 million at the federal, state and local levels and millions in grants and donations. With about $36 million of that going to homelessness-specific issues, it’s a head-spinning system that is bureaucratic and political, rich with workers who want to help those in need and filled with an array of philosophical approaches to dealing with the homeless problem.

Toby Owen, director of the Presbyterian Night Shelter, the largest night shelter in North Texas, believes that kindness and accountability go hand in hand when dealing with the homeless.

“Our compassion is really great as a society, but sometimes we let the compassion override the personal responsibility and personal expectations,” he said. “If you lower the bar, people do get comfortable. No one chooses to be homeless, but there are points where people choose to continue to be homeless.”

Of those homeless in Fort Worth each year:

“Maybe it is bad luck, maybe it’s bad choices, maybe it’s bad circumstances,” said Otis Thornton, director of Fort Worth’s homeless program. “I find frequently it is a combination of all three of those, and it is something that has spiraled out of somebody’s control.”

For Farnsworth, it’s about economics.

She makes just over $900 a month before taxes from her job at Subway. To not spend more than 30 percent of her income on housing, a federal standard, she needs to find an apartment that costs $278 a month.

That’s not feasible, experts say, effectively keeping her on the streets.

‘We are all we got’

While it’s mostly quiet at night — thanks to strict curfews at the shelters and a steady police presence — East Lancaster comes to life every morning as the homeless spill out of shelters to go about their business, whatever that may be.

Map: Fort Worth’s homeless district

Some, like Farnsworth, are furiously looking for a way out, trying to save enough money to find housing and a normal life.

Others seek help through a variety of available programs — for veterans and addicts, ex-cons and the mentally ill.

And others simply relocate to the sidewalks, wrapped in frayed blankets, faces carefully cloaked under covers to avoid mosquitoes in the summer and cold winds in the winter. They are often the ones content to look for the dizzying amount of handouts — food, clothing, blankets.

For Johnny “DJ” Burks, a middle-aged man whose neatly pulled-back hair is starting to gray, the sidewalks are a gathering place, the bustling front porch of the homeless district. Wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey and a large black cross hanging from his neck, Burks waves and smiles as friends call for his attention while walking past.

One woman, her bags in tow, asks Burks how his wife is doing. She is doing better, he replies, with a gentle smile.

“It is just like one big family, because we are all we got,” said Burks, who got his nickname by collecting CDs and playing music — country, rap, gospel or anything that will lift the spirits of the crowd — at Unity Park.

The CDs, visible in his mesh backpack, are his most valued possession and take up most of the space in his bag. The little bit of space not used for the music has toiletries and ramen noodles.

Burks lost his job doing manual labor just after Christmas last year after back surgery made the work impossible. Now he is “trying to hold on, trying to find a job and trying to do better.”

Though willing to offer help and advice to friends or the newly homeless, he said it is best to be “quick to listen and slow to speak.”

When a fight breaks out 20 feet away, the tension on the sidewalk is palpable. A young man tries to intervene. Burks shakes his head.

“He doesn’t know better yet. He hasn’t been here long enough,” Burks said.

‘I have respect for myself’

Some other things you don’t want to do if you are homeless on East Lancaster, Burks said: walk around at night, leave your belongings unattended or travel down the side streets without a friend. There is safety in numbers, he said, and if you’re a woman, be wary of men.

For one victimized woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, that harsh life is all too real.

“Men will give you a soda and then expect something from it,” she said. “It is very hard on me. It is very disrespectful. I have respect for myself, even though I’m homeless.”

She doesn’t sleep on the streets because the risks of assault and rape are greater there, though she fears getting lice and bedbugs from the shelters. She swabs down the bunk beds with rubbing alcohol each night and puts vinegar in her hair three times a week to keep lice away.

The risk of violence is much higher for the homeless, especially women, statistics show.

According to a recent study by the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, 1 in 6 women on East Lancaster reported being raped, and 23 percent reported unwanted sexual contact. Besides suffering verbal abuse and threats, some women said they were choked, slapped, beaten or even shot at and stabbed.

The average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated at 42 to 52 years, compared with 78 years in the housed population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Homelessness has a stark effect on the people experiencing it. Burks, who looks for work during the week and goes to the church service at Unity Park on Saturdays, said the hardest thing is not giving up hope.

“Depression sets in when you can’t do the things that you used to do, when you don’t make the money you used to, when you are forced to not be able to take care of yourself or your family,” Burks said. “You end up at a place like this, at a shelter, where you become dependent on everything they do and everything they got.”

A cruel cycle of frustrations

While unemployment is the most common reason for men to be homeless, it’s domestic violence for women. Addictions, disabilities and mental illnesses come into play for some. Most children end up homeless because their parents are.

A lack of affordable housing effects everyone.

Fort Worth needs 17,000 more affordable-housing units to serve the lowest income segment of the population, city officials have determined.

And housing is tied directly to a need for higher-paying jobs; a person making minimum wage in Fort Worth would have to work 100 hours a week to afford a fair-market-value apartment.

It’s a cruel cycle of frustrations that only worsen once someone slips into homelessness.

Many employers are less likely to hire someone whose address is a homeless shelter, Owen said.

“The label as homeless comes with it preconceived ideas,” Owen said. “Some are true. Some are untrue. But then they have that issue to overcome.”

And even if they do find an employer willing to hire them, obstacles keep popping up.

Buying a pair of steel-toed work boots, finding transportation or obtaining a state-issued ID is an overwhelming hardship when all you have in your pocket is $1.75. The Fort Worth Transportation Authority recently announced it would phase out its complimentary bus passes to the homeless beginning in October 2015, adding to the list of stumbling blocks.

Homelessness continues.

“Politically and philosophically, Fort Worth is what it is, and it just views homelessness more from that individual, personal-failure perspective,” said James Petrovich, a professor at TCU who studies homeless issues. “But then you start seeing homeless as the end result of a chain of events. I don’t think anyone just wakes up one day and ends up homeless.”

Whose job is it?

On a July morning destined to be another scorcher, Annie Thomas waits for the Day Resource Center to open. She sits precariously perched on one of two green suitcases, one with the wheel popped off, propped against the fence.

Thomas, wearing a forest green shirt — her favorite color — rocks nervously as she explains this is the safe place to go. She has recently had her medicine and ID stolen, she said. But the nervousness diminishes a little and she smiles a wide grin when the gates to the Day Resource Center open at 8 a.m. Inside, she can lock her belongings up, take a shower and maybe even enjoy a chess match.

The Day Resource Center is just one of the 40-plus organizations in Tarrant County providing services to the homeless. The homeless can reserve beds at one of three shelters — the Presbyterian Night Shelter, the Union Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army — find ample clothing donations, eat three or more meals a day and receive unlimited handouts from volunteer groups who swoop in to the district, mostly on weekends, to donate food, clothes, blankets, toiletries and other goods.

But the array of services and funding is confusing at best, and many needs still need to be met, like violence prevention for women, night outreach and affordable housing, advocates for the homeless say.

The Fort Worth City Council created a Homelessness Task Force in April to study those needs after another city board accused the council of not doing enough to solve the problem.

In fiscal 2014, the city spent $2.5 million on homeless services. That same year, they spent $5.4 million on animal care and control, prompting Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., to challenge the city to “prioritize human beings at least on par with dogs and cats.” Taft wanted the city to pony up or find private donations totaling an additional $6 million to create new affordable-housing programs.

Still, one of the first questions that Councilman Danny Scarth asked during the task force meetings was, Whose job is it to help the homeless?

Fort Worth did not have a plan to address homelessness locally until 2008, and the city didn’t directly fund homeless issues until 2009.

“To be really honest, there is a philosophical question that you really have to answer and that is — ‘Is it the city’s job to begin to pick up the slack for human services?’ ” Scarth said.

‘Someone to lead the charge’

Local governments across the nation are coming up with a wide range of answers to the responsibility question, especially as money from federal programs continues to shrink.

Some cities, like New York, have “right-to-shelter” policies that require the city to provide shelter to anyone who asks for it. Others, like Shawnee, Okla., have been accused of having a “war on the homeless” and not providing enough space at shelters, according to local news reports.

“Does local government have a responsibility here, and if so, what is the responsibility?” Thornton asked.

Cities also must determine what issues to focus on.

In Tarrant County, the homeless are given priority ratings, based on federal guidelines, to ensure that the most help goes to those who need it the most, said Cindy Crain, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

While the coalition is tasked to help everyone, it pays special attention to homeless veterans and the chronically homeless.

Interactive: Where the homeless come from

A chronically homeless person is someone who has a disabling condition and has been continuously homeless for at least a year or homeless at least four times in the past three years, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, or HUD.

Many cities tend to focus on the chronically homeless, which coincides with HUD goals.

While only about 14 percent of Fort Worth’s homeless total, the chronically homeless receive about 50 percent of the money allocated toward homelessness because they tend to need more emergency services, like ambulances and police and expensive stays in emergency rooms.

To meet the needs of the chronically homeless, Fort Worth needs an additional 600 units of permanent supportive housing, Thornton said.

Supportive housing — think of it as an assisted-living center for the homeless — has an array of services, including social workers and medical care. That cost? An additional $6 million a year, homeless advocates say.

“I think the housing needs to go to the people who are the most vulnerable, and that is something that we as a community have grappled with — how do we prioritize housing?” said Petrovich, the TCU professor.

‘So overwhelmingly complex’

The one thing most cities have in common is the Continuum of Care, a federally mandated board responsible for leading the community effort on homelessness. The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, chosen as the lead agency to oversee the details of that work, coordinates grant applications for the groups seeking federal and state funding and manages homeless statistics.

The system can be dizzying.

In Tarrant County, 17 federal agencies provide funding that helps operate 94 programs, including HUD and the Veterans Affairs Department. And 11 state agencies provide funding that operates 22 programs, including the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Texas Education Agency.

But while the Continuum of the Care is the go-to agency for homelessness issues, it has limited influence over local homeless agencies.

The coalition, the city and the county can’t tell one another what to do, nor can they regulate the many nonprofits taking a lead in addressing homelessness in Fort Worth, leaving the service providers operating independently of one another.

“For many of us, just seeing someone who is homeless, the reflex to want to do something about it is so simple that it is maddening when you confront the actual mechanics of making that happen,” Thornton said. “It just seems so overwhelmingly complex.”

And that’s part of the problem, experts say.

Norbert White, the president of Tarrant County Samaritan House and a member of the Homelessness Task Force, said what’s needed is a specific plan that includes all the agencies.

“You need someone to lead the charge,” White said. “You need someone to help bring together that broad alliance that reaches across the funders, the providers, the governmental agencies and helps them to define: Where are we going and why?”

Farnsworth, meanwhile, isn’t concerned with the politics at play in the district, the who’s in charge or how the problem gets solved. She just wants to keep working at Subway, save money and find her way out of the concrete room surrounded by high-school-style lockers she shares with other women each night.

“Still, to this day, I think God put me here for a reason. I say that all the time,” she said. “Just to show me there are other things out there and I can deal with it. To show me that you can get back on your feet.”

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