On a Saturday in mid-September, Juliet Venegas, 50, entered the Salvation Army family shelter on East Lancaster Avenue, looking for a place to stay with her two boys. There, she was given a cot in the shelter’s overflow room before moving to a dorm room.
Venegas was then moved to a motel provided by the shelter, where she has stayed the past two weeks with her 13-year-old, Francisco, and her 11-year-old, Pablo, who has a disability.
“It’s a relief,” she said.
Venegas is one of an average of 162 families who have become homeless in Tarrant and Parker counties since the end of the summer. About 85% of those households are from Fort Worth.
That number has doubled from a year ago when it dropped as low as 83 families.
As rental prices for affordable housing continue to increase across the Metroplex, local shelters are struggling to accommodate the increasing number of families seeking a place to stay.
Places like the Salvation Army and Presbyterian Night Shelter are either at capacity or in some instances, doubling up families in smaller rooms.
Deborah Bullock is the director of adult and family programs for Ellis and Tarrant counties at the Salvation Army family shelter. The trend can be traced back to April, she said.
“This is something that I’ve not seen anything like before,” said Bullock, who has worked 27 years at Salvation Army. “It is something that is outside of the norm.”
Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said the city is watching how the numbers have doubled since last year.
“We’ve been one of the fastest-growing cities for the last 10 years, and our numbers have really stayed stable. That’s why this uptick, we take seriously,” Parker said.
Lauren King, executive director for the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, said the cities of Dallas and San Antonio face a family homelessness crisis that is similar to Fort Worth’s.
“I think an alarming statistic for us is that we have more homeless families around than Houston does. And so considering the size (of Houston compared to us), that’s why we are being proactive, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get out in front of this,’” King said. “We’ve had discussions about not only do we want to solve right now but what if this does not slow down? What are we going to do? We haven’t seen that before.”
Increasing rent, inflation among contributing factors
Venegas’ struggle with housing started two years ago when she left an abusive relationship in Florida and returned home to Fort Worth. She sought help at the Salvation Army, which transferred her to SafeHaven, a domestic violence shelter.
She was provided an apartment but after a year of not finding work because of her criminal history from 20 years ago, she fell behind on rent. She also tried to help her brother who found himself on the streets and eventually, she and her family were evicted.
Venegas ended up staying in her car for two weeks until she found a temporary room in Mansfield. After several months there, she left and ended up at the Salvation Army.
“I have to stay positive. I’ve got my boys. I don’t want to get depressed in front of them or cry in front of them, because they’re going to feel it, too. I take it one day at a time,” she said. “The hardest thing is when I don’t have money to feed my kids.”
Various factors are attributed to this increase in family homelessness, officials say. The expiration of the eviction moratorium and the end of federal rental assistance programs in the summer of 2021 have left families struggling to make ends meet, according to an informal city staff report presented to City Council on Oct. 18.
Rent inflation also means that families are less likely to double up in rooms and those who could pay for motels themselves are no longer able to because of economic pressures.
Another contributing factor is the increase in family sizes. Shelters are seeing more generations living together.
Salvation Army’s family shelter has 60 beds available. Currently, the shelter is supporting a300 individuals in the shelter, overflow spaces, and hotels – 385% over capacity.
The organization has had to stop the intake process.
“It was really hard for us to do that,” Bullock said. “But at this point, with our limited staff and limited space, we just couldn’t bring any more into our location or with our service.”
Staff at Salvation Army are currently referring newcomers to the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition hotline network to connect them with other resources.
Between January and September 2022, rent prices for an affordable one-bedroom apartment increased by 9.6% — from $986 to $1,081. Conventional rent prices for a one-bedroom apartment increased by 8.4% during that same period, according to the city staff report.
What is affordable housing?
Affordable housing generally refers to a single-family home or apartment that is occupied by a household that pays 30% or less of its gross income toward its mortgage or rent. The term is also widely used to refer to housing that is subsidized or rent-regulated and that is occupied by a household that is considered “low-income.”
Mayor Parker described the lack of affordable housing as a nationwide crisis.
“I consider this a crisis because of who’s impacted: our families and children,” Parker said. “It breaks your heart knowing these are kids that do not deserve to be sleeping on a cot but that’s the safest place for them right now.”
King said an increase in family homelessness is expected over the summer months but usually drops back down once school returns.
This has not been the case.
“Just the increase in rent, and lack of childcare available for families, they cannot make ends meet anymore. So typically, when families experience homelessness, we see that it’s an economic issue,” King said. “The numbers just don’t add up for them.”
The influx of families in the emergency shelter has brought on additional pressure on the rest of the homeless system in Tarrant County. At Presbyterian Night Shelter, some families are transferred from Salvation Army’s shelter and placed in dorms as they prepare to transition back into stable housing.
Usually, the Presbyterian Night Shelter can host 40 families in 40 rooms. But because of the increasing number of families at Salvation Army, some dorms are shared between two families.
Right now, 44 families are being served in Presbyteran’s program — 142 people, of which 93 are children.
“It’s a big increase. It certainly adds stress to the four families that have someone in the room with them,” said Toby Owen, CEO of Presbyterian Night Shelter. “Four families doesn’t sound like a lot when you go above occupancy, but it does change the dynamics of what we typically do.”
City, county prioritizing short- and long-term solutions
The city of Fort Worth is responding to the need for assistance by allocating $75,000 to the Salvation Army family shelter to help it sustain operations, including an upcoming renovation to the center.
Some federal funds were also redirected toward rapid rehousing.
“Our Rapid Rehousing dollars do work and a lot of our families have that eligibility. But, unfortunately, it’s very difficult for them to access affordable housing right now because there’s such a long waiting list,” Mayor Parker said.
The city also recently allocated American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the future Tobias Place off of Hemphill, which will dedicate 53 very low-income units to homeless households, with a focus on families to address the current demand.
“That’s a really complicated development project that will serve the exact type of families and have childcare on site that’s available,” Parker said. “And those are the types of things I want to see approved in the city as quickly as possible and to be able to spearhead that alongside some public dollars through Tarrant County and the city of Fort Worth.”
City, county initiatives for affordable housing
- Funding allocations to the Salvation Army shelter for renovations.
- Federal funds are being redirected toward rapid rehousing.
- American Rescue Plan Act funds are being allocated toward the completion of Tobias Place.
- Tarrant County has opened its request for proposals, using federal funds.
- Fort Worth is looking for a property to create another temporary emergency shelter.
During the Oct. 18 informal report to city council on this issue, Mayor Parker said the city would soon be putting out calls to action for community members to continue working on short-term and long-term solutions.
Tarrant County currently has a request for proposals for affordable housing projects that could help with the current housing crisis using federal dollars.
The city is now looking for a property that could be rehabilitated over the next three to six months into an emergency shelter to ease the ongoing demand from families.
“Imagine being a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old, and you are without a roof over your head, maybe you’re switching schools. And that’s incredibly traumatic, and we don’t want them in a shelter environment,” the mayor said.
How can you help?
Financial contributions are among the most effective ways to support the shelters’ operations and help offset the cost of supplies and staff.
Presbyterian Night Shelter is also accepting linen donations. That includes bedsheets, towels, blankets, etc.
For more information, visit http://fortworth.satruck.org/fortwortharc/Donate or https://www.journeyhome.org/donate.
Ultimately, the solution to reduce family homelessness in Tarrant County is to build more affordable housing, Presbyterian Night Shelter’s Owen said. But he knows it’s not a quick fix and is hopeful that the pool of state and federal dollars up for grabs for affordable housing projects will spur interest.
“Never has there been the opportunity that we have now, and I don’t think it’ll ever come again, the opportunity that the service provider community has, with funds available for the development of affordable housing,” Owen said. “There’s never been this much money available to do the development of housing for the homeless. And we’re doing everything we can to take advantage of that.”
Venegas is waiting to get a copy of her kids’ birth certificates to be able to apply for a housing voucher and eventually get her own place. Right now, she hopes to start her job as a cleaner to supplement her son’s $800 monthly disability check and provide for her boys.
“Christmas is coming up. They’re already making a Christmas list,” Venegas said. “I’m keeping my head up. I’m having faith in God, everything’s going to work out for me and the kids. Whatever happened in the past, I just can’t be dwelling on that. I just gotta keep going forward.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @ssadek19.
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