In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, John Ramsey, the director of Hands of Hope in Fort Worth, discusses the resources his team and others throughout Tarrant County have compiled to connect people to services. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For an unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: So John, can you first just tell us a little bit about Hands of Hope?

John Ramsey: Sure. My wife and I founded Hands of Hope in 2010. We had attended a meal that had several folks there that were dealing with homelessness. Took a lot of photos that day. Got home, and whenever I got to blowing the pictures up, I realized that a lady was walking on the heels of her shoes. When we really zoomed down on it, I realized that, it’s because her shoes were too small for her feet. And so we began, just by posting a picture on our personal Facebook page that, “Hey, we’d like to get some shoes to carry back out next Wednesday.” 

Over the next few weeks, we attended that meal on a regular basis, just getting to know the individuals that were coming to it. I was always amazed at how someone can live outside and survive the elements and everything. So, really kind of learning from them. We got involved to the point of taking over the meal, having our friends come up and volunteer. But it bothered me if all we were doing was that handout. We weren’t really doing anything to resolve the homelessness. After a lot of discussion, we formed Hands of Hope as a 501(c)3 and doing whatever connection, trying to identify the root cause to help the individual leave the street and partnering with every organization we could partner with. And that was really our founding. 

Today, we are 11 years down the road. And now we’re contracted with the Texas Department of Housing, we’re a member of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, and we collaborate with all of the local outreach teams on a regular basis. And we have multiple teams throughout the county. We’re completing their housing assessments and getting them connected with housing programs and other resources that will address the root cause to end their homelessness.

Allison: On that note, can you tell us a little bit about some of the root causes that you’ve seen?

Ramsey: It’s so varied. In some cases of behavioral health issues, mental health being one, addictions being another. On the addiction note, we’ve seen both sides of that. We’ll have the brokenhearted family member that contacts, talking to us about the broken relationship because of whatever that addiction is that the individual is facing. 

And then we have been on the other side of that and explained to the individual that your family has not given up on you. They want the old you back. It’s the addiction that we need to deal with, and once we get that addiction out of the way, it betters the chance of being able to restore that family relationship. So I would say mental health, behavioral health issues, addictions. 

There are some economic factors that are coming in. Right now, we’re getting a lot of calls of individuals facing evictions, you know, due to COVID. And now that COVID funding is ending, there’s been a real surge. I saw one report that was, we’re in the top 10 (cities in the nation) as far as evictions that are coming. and so that definitely contributes to it. Just really simplifying, over-simplifying huge buckets.

Allison: You’ve worked in this space for more than a decade, and I’m wondering, what are some of the misconceptions that you’ve encountered about people who are dealing with homelessness?

Ramsey: I think the most common misconception is, they choose to live on the street. They choose to be homeless. You know, that is a real misconception. And we’ll be told they … which, “they” in itself is a really hurtful word, you know, to throw everyone into it. But in a conversation, to hear that, “Well, the individual, they’re refusing help, they don’t want help.” 

When dealing with the individual and you’re talking to them, there may be a protective barrier there on their end, where they may tell you that, “No, I choose to be out here. I’m good. I prefer being outside. I prefer being unhoused.” 

But I think that the misconception there, I think that is a protective barrier on them, because they have, in a lot of cases, they have either tried something, tried some program, maybe they were matched with an incorrect program. They’ve tried something and given up, they have been made empty promises, you know. Had an individual come up, “Hey, I’m gonna get your job, we’re gonna help you leave, leave the street,” and that individual leaves their life. 

Or, they’re not aware that there are programs out there, and that there may be something to help them end their homelessness. And so I feel like our role is kind of on both sides of that fence, and that is trying to address that misconception with the individual that’s telling me that he wants to be there to that actual individual over here that he may have told me, too, that he doesn’t, that he’s happy with being out there. But we’ve had a very small percentage actually turned down housing whenever the housing is available for them. Minute. 

Allison: I noticed on the Hands of Hope website that you have a resource page for people who are asking for assistance, maybe on a street corner. Can you tell us a little bit about that page and how it came to be? 

Ramsey: Sure. It came through questions to us. Some simple questions: “What do I do, you know, do I give money, do I not give money?” I always start with, “You do what your heart tells you to do.” My caution there is, and this has nothing to do with his homelessness, this has to do with people in general, when you lower a window and hand cash from that window, it puts you in a really vulnerable situation safety-wise. I would advise against it just for your personal safety. 

And I’m not saying that, I mean, it is a very small percentage, but it’s just people in general across all populations. A viable option is, one, you can actually take a photo. If you’re not comfortable with taking a photo, simply text us. You can send us a text with a location and time. A description is amazingly helpful. If there is a photo, it’s very helpful to us in locating that individual. We have teams across the county that will respond and try to locate him. And if we can’t come that day, or if it’s over a weekend, we will look for the individual, and in most cases, they’re going to be somewhere in that general area, and we will have the ability to be able to recognize them and then offer those services to them. 

How do you help someone who’s panhandling?

If you see someone holding a sign asking for money or assistance, text a photo along with the location, day and time to 817-298-2779. The Hands of Hope outreach team will try to find and offer help to the person.

Also, download and print a copy of the 2021 “Pocket Pal,” a resource book of homeless services in Tarrant County.

We put other resources on there. The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition provides (what) we refer to as a Pocket Pal. All of the homeless service providers within Tarrant County that are members of the coalition that deal specifically with homelessness, they’re listed on that card. And then the other point that we added was 211. It’s a United Way number, it’s a free call. All of the organizations that are on our Pocket Pal are there. But the benefit to 211 is, it also covers areas outside of the coalition, Dallas, Denton and surrounding counties as well. So it’s a great resource.

Allison: So would you recommend that someone print off that Pocket Pal? And then give it to someone that they see on the street? Or, how would you recommend that be best used?

Ramsey: Sure. Absolutely. We put it I think in a PDF where you can do just that. If you’re going to hand out water or anything, it’s always helpful to give them that little piece even though we advise against (handing someone something out a window). Give them the resources as well, where they’ve at least got those numbers to where they can reach out and contact us. I will add this, too. If they are in medical duress, if they are acting in a threatening manner, if they’re in traffic, if they’re knocking on your window, I would go ahead and notify 911 or the local … non-emergency number. Fort Worth police does have a (Homeless Outreach Program Enforcement, or HOPE) unit, and they deal specifically with the unsheltered population, just as we do. We’re one of the collaborative partners with them. The HOPE team is made up of Fort Worth police, the Tarrant County MHMR and DRC (and the fire department). So it’s a great partnership. 

Allison: Can you tell us a little bit about, if the outreach team is alerted to a person on the street, what do they actually talk to them about? What will that look like?

Ramsey: Well, the first is a simple approach. Most of the time, whenever we come up, they recognize, because we’re in street outreach shirts, the vehicles are marked “street outreach.” So they’ve got a pretty good indication why we’re there. Part of the greeting is, we provide them with a personal hygiene kit, which is simply a baggie made up. Contents are all travel size, because a lot of times they’re carrying everything they have on their back. But we’ll include a roll of toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, and other various personal hygiene items. In addition, we’ve added a (COVID-19) informational flier and some (personal protective equipment) in there as far as the mask, hand sanitizer. 

On our first approach, we’re handing them that, and then trying to engage them as far as what we can do to help. We’ll ask them, “Has anyone attempted to help you with your housing?” and even if we’re told yes, even if they have started the process, we can update that process to keep them current. And so that’s really what that initial contact. We don’t do a lot of handouts. We would rather make that connection for them. To help them get to shelter. A big part of it is diversion. And by that I mean, if there’s a family member, we can reach out to, maybe even out of state, if we can verify that they’re not going to be on the street when they get there, we’ll provide the cost of a bus ticket to get them home. So we look at trying to resolve it, not just putting them into the system, but we’re trying to see what we can do on that location to be able to resolve the issue.

Allison: Can you elaborate more on the philosophy of not always giving a handout?

Ramsey: I think you can create a dependency. If I had one lady tell me, “Well, every day I’ve seen this individual — every day at this intersection.” We make contact with the individual to find out that, actually, there were four individuals involved here that were all staying together. This specific intersection is good for about $100 an hour. Again, that’s just based on what the guys have told us: “I make $100 out here an hour, hour-and-a half.” 

In this case that I’m using as a reference, they were staying in a motel, and they were dropping each other off from south Arlington all the way around to northwest Fort Worth. And they worked the intersection like a job. After a few hours, the truck goes back, picks all the four guys up. In that specific case, they were picking up their food, dealing with their addictions and going back to the motel to return the following day. 

So, the other side of that, we’ve had individuals that are truly, absolutely in that desperation mode. In those cases, they’re very willing, open and asking of us whenever we get there. 

But … I would never discourage anyone from helping someone, but we ourselves do not give out a lot, just because I don’t want to enable them to remain where they are. I want to see them get connected and be able to see them leave the street. And a lot of times that can be a barrier, just the amount of stuff that they’ve received.

Allison: It’s complicated.

Ramsey: It is, it is. I feel, on this (conversation), I’ll have cheers, and I’ll have people throwing rocks. What I always say, especially for those that are forming an organization, is this is a collaborative effort. We partner with organizations all over the county that do provide meals, that do provide the handout. We come in as just a piece of that puzzle to do their housing assessments, to get them connected with services. The Acclaim outreach, started through JPS, is a medical street outreach team, for example. We partner with them. If we see an individual in need, then we’re going to make that connection for them wherever that is. And if hunger is an issue, we want to tell them where they can find the food. So, I hope that answers your question.

Allison: It does, and is there anything else that you’d like to share or add?

Ramsey: I would ask that, you can get involved as minimally or as much as you want. I would look at the organizations that are out there. Organizations like ours, we need the support. We need financial support, but we also need that understanding that there are people that care. There are a lot of people that care. Tarrant County is, I think, fortunate in that the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition has set a goal to house 2,200 people this year. It’s a big goal. We’re all excited about it, because we believe we can do it. And so, I would ask for financial support, I would ask to get involved with Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, attend their meetings — they’ve got both virtual and in person. Get to know the organizations that exist and see where you fit. Our website, they can find out information on us. We will post volunteer opportunities. We don’t go into the camps — we’re not urban tourism, but we do offer volunteer opportunities.

Allison: Thank you so much, John. 

Ramsey: You bet. Thank you.

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....