Sometimes those two objectives are at odds with each other.
Robert Clark, the interim pastor at Garden Oaks Baptist Church, said the complex at 3206 N. Shepherd Dr. is a popular gathering place for parishioners as well as children who attend the Garden Oaks Baptist Early Learning Center. Situated on a major thoroughfare in close proximity to a freeway, it’s also a place where homeless people congregate.
Clark said members of the area’s homeless community regularly walk past the church while making their way down Shepherd. Sometimes they seek help from the church in terms of food, clothing or money, and sometimes they find a covered corner on the property that makes for a good place to sleep at night.
Their presence is a concern to many church members, Clark said, so they regularly are asked to relocate. But the church also has provided some form of assistance to many of them.
“We’re trying to do our part to show God’s love to people who are obviously having great difficulties in their lives,” he said. “We feel like it’s part of being Jesus in the world today, and we want to contribute toward that.
“But at the same time, obviously there is a security concern, especially where small children and parents of those children are concerned. We want to ensure they’re as safe as possible.”
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that assists the homeless across the Houston area, there are about 4,000 homeless people in the region and that number has fluctuated in recent years. The same is true within the six zip codes served by The Leader, with the estimated homeless population jumping from about 75 in 2017 to more than 200 in 2018, then dipping to about 100 this year.
A longtime Garden Oaks resident who attends Garden Oaks Baptist Church and used to walk her two grandchildren to its neighboring preschool said she recently stopped doing that because she was concerned about a few homeless men who started congregating along Shepherd. A July 4 Facebook post on the page for Shepherd Park Plaza asked about an increased number of homeless people at the intersection of Shepherd and Loop 610, prompting more than 50 comments.
Ana Rausch, a senior research project manager with the Coalition for the Homeless, said the region-wide homeless population has decreased by more than 50 percent since 2011. But she and Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Mayor Sylvester Turner for homeless initiatives, both said urban development has created shifts in the location of homeless people and made them more visible within certain communities.
“There’s less people than there were before,” Eichenbaum said, “but they’re now more visible than ever before.”
Rausch said the coalition, the lead agency for a region-wide partnership called The Way Home, manages $38 million per year in federal funding to combat homelessness and has helped house about 17,000 homeless people since 2011. Last year, she said more than 2,700 homeless people were housed either permanently or temporarily.
Rausch said the cost to house a homeless person in Houston is about half of the cost associated with that person living on the street, because of the typical costs needed for shelters, outreach, medical emergencies and instances in which homeless people are arrested and jailed.
“What the city and its partners are interested in is breaking the cycle between shelter, jail and the streets by the use of housing to permanently solve the issue of homelessness, not just manage it,” Eichenbaum said.
Rausch said homeless people can seek housing and other forms of assistance by registering through a program called Coordinated Access. There are multiple locations throughout the city where homeless people can connect with case workers, who also hit the streets to connect with the homeless.
Homeless people who are veterans, have children or cope with physical disabilities or mental health issues are given priority, Rausch said. Some are eventually placed in “Permanent Support Housing,” which includes supportive services after move-in, and those with less of a need and more resources of their own are placed in “Rapid Rehousing.”
Since homeless people tend to be transient, Rausch said locating them after they enter the system can be challenging.
“Everyone gets placed on a waiting list,” Rausch said. “We don’t have resources to place someone immediately.”
Although many citizens with homes and jobs provide help to homeless people on an individual, case-by-case basis, Eichenbaum and Rausch both said donating to panhandlers is counterproductive to the region’s organized effort. Rausch said donating to the coalition or any of about 100 homeless service providers would ultimately be more beneficial, because the money would be used toward housing homeless people and not just feeding them or providing clothing.
“If people get their needs met on the street, they won’t come in and engage with any of our partners,” Rausch said. “It makes it hard for us to house them.”
Clark said Garden Oaks Baptist Church has a policy under which it provides financial assistance to a homeless person only once per year. But its interaction with the homeless is regular and occasionally causes concern among its members.
Clark, who has worked for the church for about a year, said he isn’t aware of any incidents in which a homeless person caused harm to a church member or church property. So during that time, the church has not felt compelled to contact authorities to address an issue with a homeless person.
Clark said Garden Oaks Baptist tries to strike a balance between being a safe haven for those inside its building while being kind and generous to those outside.
“Homelessness is very, very complex,” Eichenbaum said. “As much as I wish there was a magic wand for a very simple solution, the reality is it’s a complex issue that has a complex solution. But with hard work, it can be done.”