It was a quiet Monday morning in Kaufman County on Nov. 4 as residents began to prepare for the upcoming holiday season. For most, this time of year brings to mind thoughts of family, friends and appreciation for life’s greatest blessings. But for others, this time of year is a time of heartache, loneliness and fear. Fear about where that next meal is coming from. Fear about where they’re going to stay for the night as the cold fronts begin to blow. And so, on Monday morning on Nov. 4, Kaufman County community members, officials, church leaders, police officers and first responders, and residents came together for a meeting on what can be done to begin to address this issue as the county’s population continues to grow.
Richard Dunn, who runs local nonprofit The Center and helped organize the foundation for Kaufman County’s now official Homeless Coalition, admits that the issue of homelessness and housing insecurity in Kaufman County will not be an easy or quick issue to solve.
“Sometimes things worth correcting take a while to get done,” Dunn said in front of approximately 65 members of the Kaufman County community in the county library on Nov. 4, “We have homeless people in Kaufman County. It surprises a lot of people because they’re kind of invisible; people don’t see them because there’s a different way that it happens here. But these residents are people who need just the opportunity to live a life of dignity and a decent place to live. But here’s the situation: there really are no resources to offer them any hope. There are no affordable housing options. There are no resources to give them (financial) education. We need to start talking about solutions because, let’s face it, as Kaufman County continues to grow, prices continue to go up.”
Reflecting on the gathering a couple of days later, both Dunn and Bethany Thomas, the associate director of The Center and now chair of the county’s local homeless coalition, are quite pleased with the turnout and the reactions they gathered afterward. Their greatest ambition for the new coalition is to provide a network of connections for people who have ideas on how to curb homelessness throughout the county.
“We have a community full of people that have huge hearts and brains,” Thomas said. “We’ve got people that have great ideas around here. The coalition is going to be a place where we can all come together and harness that power and move forward.”
While the coalition is looking for some long-term solutions down the road, right now their biggest mission is one of education, informing the public of the issue at hand and the kinds of homelessness that the county faces. Homelessness in Kaufman County rarely results in strangers huddled in front of businesses in cardboard boxes or panhandling for money at the side of the road. Instead, homelessness in Kaufman County and many other rural areas throughout the country arises in the form of people living out of their cars or in dilapidated structures outside of the city limits that would be condemned if they were within a municipality. It includes multiple people or families living in a single-family home or individuals who have lost their home or apartment staying long-term in local motels.
As leaders of The Center, which helps coordinate the local food pantry and assists those looking for work in securing a job and a place to live, Dunn and Thomas have seen the kinds of people who are most affected by homelessness and housing insecurity in Kaufman. They include people with a criminal record who have recently been released from prison, domestic abuse victims, seniors who have lost a spouse, and even individuals and families who are working full-time but at an hourly wage rate that simply isn’t enough to pay for housing in a community that is seeing property values skyrocket. They’ve also come face-to-face with many of the inaccurate stereotypes, preconceptions and stigmas that surround the issue of homelessness.
“A lot of times it comes up that people are homeless or struggling with their housing because they don’t want to work,” Thomas said. “But when you really get down to it, the number of people who fit in that category is negligible. The reality is, we have people who want to work but then their car broke down and they lost their job and then used all their money for their rent until they no longer had a place to live. That’s what we face.”
“If you’re working 40 hours a week making $9 an hour, are you telling me you’d be OK?” Dunn asked. “No you’re not. I had a veteran I was working with a few weeks ago that needed some help getting to the VA. The only time their services are open is from 9-5 Monday through Friday. He was afraid to take off because he’s got a job that the bottom line is they could let him go today, they could hire a new person tomorrow, and by the afternoon that person is doing just as effective of a job. We’re all expendable, but those low-income jobs, they aren’t highly skilled so they’ll just let them go. You’ve got to understand what these people go through every day.”
With the realization that homelessness was becoming a much larger issue than the majority of the community recognized, Dunn began looking for ways to begin to address the problem. In April, he organized a lunch with a few specific members of the community whom he knew were interested in combating this problem head on. Many of these people now make up what has become the bedrock foundation of the county homeless coalition.
Next, Dunn and Thomas began getting involved with a statewide nonprofit called the Texas Homeless Network, which coordinates with local homeless coalitions across the state and helps them record and manage data and coordinates funding efforts based on that data. Dunn attended a statewide conference of these coalitions and attended a meeting in Ellis County following the completion of their first Point in Time (PIT) count, designed to help identify the number of homeless people in a specific area. The Ellis County PIT count had identified 14 homeless people and Dunn observed the different reactions to an apparently relative low number.
“The right-leaning people go ‘Well if we’ve only got 14 people in Ellis County that are homeless, then why do we even have an issue,?” Dunn said. “From the other side it’s ‘We need to take this and get funding to make these things take place.’ There’s always going to be that battle that goes on.”
“This is going to be a place where we have to all come to the table and realize that we’re not all going to see exactly eye-to-eye,” Thomas adds. “It’s a coalition, a bunch of people coming from a bunch of perspectives. We don’t all have to have the exact same opinions on this to make this work.”
But in order to be affiliated with the Texas Homeless Network, Kaufman County’s local homelessness coalition does have to complete a Point in Time count, which will take place along with the rest of the nation in January. Although the PIT count is not really an accurate representation of all of the homeless people in a given area due to its stringent time requirements and definition of homelessness, it does provide a baseline that will provide the coalition a data point from which to branch off and begin applying for grants and addressing the issues that the count illuminates.
“We think it’s a good idea because it’s a starting point and we just don’t have any information,” Thomas said. “To do something, you’ve got to gather information. It’s not going to be a perfect picture of how many homeless people we have in Kaufman County, but it’s a starting place. For us to get any kind of funding, we have to use that data. It drives so many of the decisions we will make.”
But a key area that the PIT count doesn’t address at all is that of housing insecurity. According to federal guidelines, those who pay more than 30 percent of their income in housing costs are classified as housing insecure, and those who pay a significant portion of their income to housing run a much larger risk of becoming homeless than those who don’t. For Dunn and Thomas, it’s a key area of concern as they have personally helped get homeless people residencies in expensive complexes even though much of their income may be eaten up by the rent. Just recently, Dunn says, he helped get a man into an apartment that costs him $950 per month, even though he only takes home about $1,200 from working his full-time job that pays more than minimum wage. And even in less extreme cases, the problem persists.
“You can take this to a middle-class family with a husband and wife working good jobs,” Dunn said. “If their housing is 50 or 60 percent of their income, they’re actually housing insecure. And with a county that’s growing, prices are just going nuts. I’m a commissioner on the Planning and Zoning board. I see the growth. These houses that are going up in Kings Fort? Awesome. Those are profitable to the city. But it doesn’t help our issue at all. The terms that have to start flowing are affordable housing and low-income housing. And those are not profitable for the city.”
“Except it is,” Thomas interjected. “When you consider your city long-term, investing in affordable housing actually proves to be very cost-effective because you see children that get better quality education, it has a huge impact on your crime rates, it has an incredible impact on our community. It’s just not a today impact.”
Dunn and Thomas are hopeful that both affordable housing (housing that is within a certain cost range based on a county’s median income) and low-income housing (which is subsidized by the government) will become fixtures of municipalities across the county in the years ahead. But they’re also realistic about how long of a process these kinds of solutions can be, necessitating the creation of the homeless coalition and last week’s community forum.
“There are some things that I think could take up to four or five years to start to fall into the pocket,” Dunn said. “But if you don’t start today, then in 2025 we’ve got five more years to put them in place. We’ve got to get started. I see this as a wall and we’re filling in puzzle pieces: incarceration, domestic violence, youth homelessness, senior homelessness, affordable housing.”
“Not having a place to live as a human being is not OK,” Thomas added. “I think the bottom line is, we want the people who are already here in Kaufman who have a passion for a piece of that puzzle to run with it. We want to empower them. There are people in places around here that have funding to help with some things that, if presented with the right opportunity, can make things happen."