Collin County doesn’t have an emergency homeless shelter despite growing need

Collin County has more than a million residents and is adding more rapidly — but there’s no emergency homeless shelter despite hundreds of people in need.

By Caroline Love, KERAFebruary 2, 2023 9:03 am, ,

From KERA:

Local advocates who work with the homeless in Collin County say they’re seeing more people in crisis — and they’re not coming over from Dallas County. Shanette Eaden, the housing and community services manager for the city of Plano, said they’re local residents.

“These are not homeless that just now moved to Plano, or that just came here to our city because they think our city’s a place to be homeless,” Eaden said. “Because our place is a wrong place to be homeless — because we don’t have an emergency shelter.”

People in crisis who need a place to stay all day in night in Collin County often have nowhere to go. The county does have some options available. The Salvation Army opens warming centers when it gets cold, and there’s emergency shelter available for victims of domestic violence and youth. But there’s not a 24-hour emergency shelter available for the general population.

The Salvation Army of Plano opens its doors as a warming center for the homeless when temperatures hit 36 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Sylvia Foster was up past 10 p.m. at that warming center on a night in late January, sitting at a white plastic table. She was eating packets of mustard and drinking bottled water to soothe her throat. It was sore from a cold.

Foster has stayed at the warming center before. She said the hours are limited. People who stay overnight are back on the streets by 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.

“The Salvation Army is just a place you stay all night,” Foster said. “They do have food. They have breakfast, and you have to get out.”

So where do people go? Jimmy Coleman said he goes to Haggard Park in downtown Plano. There’s a DART station nearby, and some people ride the trains for warmth.

“I’ll just adapt to it, come out here at the park a lot and just sit and read the Bible,” said Coleman, 63.

Eaden said there’s an average of one hundred unsheltered people in Plano on any given night.

“They may be living in their car, they may be actually living outside, but they’re on the streets here in Plano,” Eaden said.

She said Plano’s unsheltered population increased by 3% last year — and most of Collin County’s homeless live in Plano.

Eaden got that information from the point-in-time count. Volunteers go out once a year on a winter’s night and help cities document the number of people who are sheltered and unsheltered to meet a federal requirement from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This year’s count was at the end of January. Eaden says the city expects to have results from this year’s point-in-time count sometime in March.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA

Collin County's Point-in-Time Count measures trends in the homeless population and brings resources to the county.

The count doesn’t document every single person experiencing homelessness. Sometimes, volunteers might not find people if they’re living in their cars, staying with relatives or living at a hotel.

But school districts often do find them. They keep track of the unhoused because of a Department of Education program authorized by the McKinney Vento Act. The program aims to remove barriers to education for students experiencing homelessness.

James Thomas, the community services coordinator for Plano ISD, said the district had 966 McKinney Vento students last school year. He said the district already has counted about 750 McKinney Vento students as of January and expects to find more.

That’s a major increase from previous school years. The district used to have about four or five hundred McKinney Vento students a year in the past.

Courtney Grober is the assistant superintendent for student, family and community services for Plano ISD. He said the district isn’t done counting its McKinney Vento students.

“We’re always identifying, and families and student situations change throughout the year,” Grober said. “And so, as more students come or as family situations change, that number for this year is most definitely going to go up.”

A cycle of poverty

Plano does have a rapid rehousing program to move people off the streets. Eaden said the city connects the person in need of housing with a case manager and pays rent and utilities for up to a year. The case manager helps with life skills and job searching.

Eaden said the city’s rapid rehousing program doesn’t happen overnight.

“It may take 30 days at minimum to even get into an apartment. So where are you staying?” she said.

Some people stay in a hotel or motel — Grober said Plano ISD even sends a school bus to pick up students at a few hotels in the district.

Coleman said he lived in a motel off of U.S. Highway 75 with his brother before he ended up on the streets. Foster also lived in a hotel.

Jill Scigliano is the CEO of the Samaritan Inn, which provides transitional housing in McKinney. She said having to pay for a temporary place to stay like a hotel makes it harder for people to transition out of homelessness.

“If you’re spending your money on hotels and then getting food, you’re kind of in a constant cycle of poverty,” Scigliano said.

She said Samaritan Inn helps break that cycle by providing the people staying at their transitional shelter with basic needs – things like food, clothing and shelter. The nonprofit also provides counseling and career coaching.

Space at Samaritan Inn is limited — Scigliano said the organization can serve about 200 people at a time for up to 18 months. And the need for assistance is growing.

“Over the past four months, we have turned away over 200 individuals who would have qualified for services simply because we don’t have room for them,” Scigliano said.

That’s a problem Terry Hockenbrough said will only get worse as the county’s population continues to increase. She’s the president of the Collin County Homeless Coalition.

Hockenbrough said that Collin County needs a 24-hour emergency shelter — but the shelter has to be a part of a wider effort to help people transition out of homelessness and into permanent housing.

“It’s an immediate first step where we can get them off the street, get them safe, and make sure that we have contact,” she said. “Get their story. Let them have something to eat. Give them some shoes. Give them a coat. And then we start the process of now, where can we help you transition to your next level?”

Jay Dunn is the managing director of the Salvation Army of North Texas. He also said that an emergency shelter needs to be part of a wider solution to end homelessness to be effective.

“If you build a shelter as a stand-alone operation, it just becomes a nice encampment,” Dunn said.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA

Plano Police Officer Chad White searches for people experiencing homelessness during the Collin County Point-in-Time Count.

Community support

Both Dunn and Hockenbrough said opening the doors to an emergency shelter takes support from the community and its leadership.

Eaden said that support is there in Plano — the city council has put resources towards homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing. Grober and Thomas said Plano ISD has received generous donations from donors and local churches who help provide funds and supplies for the district’s McKinney Vento students. And several people volunteered to help out with the point in time count. That includes Julissa Estrada and her teenage daughter, Emily.

But Estrada said not everyone in Collin County is supportive of building an emergency shelter. She said it had been put to a public vote in the past and was vetoed.

“The residents, I think, are afraid of what a shelter would bring to the community,” she said.

Estrada met Coleman and a man named Jeremy Durkins during the point-in-time count on a windy January night. She prayed for them underneath the streetlights in the parking lot at Haggard Park.

On another night, Durkins and Coleman might not have had the option to stay in Plano.

But she was able to call someone to pick the men up and take them to the warming center at the Plano Salvation Army. Estrada said she was glad the men were sleeping in a warm place that cold night.

“For the first time in a long time,” Coleman said.

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