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On a slightly overcast Thursday evening, Melaina Carnell waits in line, a stroller by her side, with a dozen other people in front of Broadway Baptist Church on Fort Worth’s south side.
In the stroller is her child, 4-month-old Noah.
Carnell and her partner, Jeremy Brooks, have been living in a motel for about two years, paying about $280 a week. But bad credit, phone bills and low income have prevented them from moving into a permanent space like a house or an apartment.
Their situation mirrors a growing trend for many families across Tarrant County.
“It’s been stressful, but we’re getting through it,” Carnell said.
A few minutes later, Carnell, Brooks and Noah enter Broadway Baptist Church to partake in the Agape Meal service, which has been taking place every week for the past 28 years. They take their seats, and the church’s youth group serves them a meal of meat and mashed potatoes. Noah starts crying amid the chatter of the hall.
Tarrant County has been grappling with a huge increase in family homelessness, a problem that has been growing since 2022 and is now hitting rates not seen since 2018, said Lauren King, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.
In August 2023, the coalition’s outreach team identified 45 families living in their cars. That’s 170 adults and children on the streets, King said.
The average age of a child living in a car was 8 years old.
“That’s not a population that (the outreach team is) accustomed to seeing outside, so it’s taking a real mental and emotional toll on them,” she said. “That is more than we’ve ever had. It’s more than we’ve ever known about.”
The need for resources is higher than ever as officials point to rising costs of living and federal funding running dry or being diverted away from housing.
A system under pressure
Nearly 3,000 people are considered homeless in Tarrant County, according to coalition numbers. That’s a 22% increase from 2020.
The increase has strained current resources in Tarrant County. And as long as people keep flowing in, it doesn’t matter how well the system functions if it simply can’t accommodate more people, King said.
“More and more people are coming into homelessness. And we actually have less resources than we’ve had in the past few years,” King said. “Those numbers just don’t add up.”
Tarrant County shelters have been over capacity for more than a year. The Salvation Army’s Mabee Social Service Center has been serving two to four times its normal capacity, said Deborah Bullock, director of adult and family services at the shelter.
To accommodate the demand, Salvation Army staff turned the center’s old gym into more space for people to sleep.
“When we began to go over capacity, this was the first thing that we opened up. At one point, this entire room was full of cots,” Bullock said while touring the facility. “We upgraded to beds to make it a little bit more comfortable. As you can tell, the floors have been worn (out).”
Now, with renovations underway at the center since Sept. 18, families have to be relocated for at least the next four months. But the center’s other services like the cafeteria and food pantry will remain open.
“For the last three months, we’ve stopped intakes because we knew we were getting ready for the renovations. We’ve diverted individuals to other locations,” Bullock said.
If you or your family is looking for a shelter, call the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition hotline at 817-996-8800.
As of Sept. 13, the Salvation Army was housing 19 families or 71 individuals. Of those 71 individuals, two-thirds were children, Bullock said.
The improvements to the center, which include reconfiguring certain areas to improve safety, create more privacy and increase bed capacity, are now underway thanks to federal funding, Bullock said.
The Salvation Army’s Mabee Center is often the first point of contact for families seeking a place to stay. Single men and women are sent to the Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County and Presbyterian Night Shelter in Fort Worth.
The city and homeless organizations are working to open up two temporary shelters to house families. One is Broadway Baptist Church, which will house up to 25 families.
“Trying to transform a space that works, especially for families, is difficult,” King said. “The city does come in and provide a lot of resources as far as costs and different kinds of basic-needs things that we need to rent shelters. And then we have partners who are willing to step up and run the shelter.”
Factors that can force a family into homelessness
Lauren King, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, says the combination of the following factors creates “the perfect storm” for families battling homelessness.
- End of the eviction moratorium: Six months after the pandemic eviction moratorium ended in March 2021, the number of families entering Tarrant County’s homeless system per month doubled from 20 to 40 (September 2021).
- End of emergency rental assistance: Federal emergency rental assistance was available in 2021 but was almost gone by March 2022. As families reached their max rental assistance, more entered homelessness.
- Rent increases: Rent for affordable properties has increased by 35% since 2018. In the past rent would increase by 1% to 6% per year. But between 2022 and 2023, it increased by 13%. Estimates show rent will jump an additional 10% in 2024. Families report that it’s not evictions that force them into homelessness but their landlord raising the rent by $300-$500 per month at lease renewal time.
- Increase in evictions: Over the past few months, Tarrant County has seen the highest numbers of evictions since before the pandemic, including one week when over 950 evictions were filed.
- Shelters are at capacity: Unsheltered homeless families were previously not common in Fort Worth. In August, the coalition’s outreach teams served 45 families who were living in cars, totaling 170 people. In September, 11 families entered homelessness. Eight of them were seen by the outreach teams but not given access to a shelter because of capacity concerns; three were able to get into a shelter immediately.
Source: Tarrant County Homeless Coalition
While the city and organizations can open shelters, another issue is the duration of a family’s stay.
Pre-COVID-19, the average stay for a family in a homeless shelter was 23 to 30 days. Now, it’s four to six months.
Longer stays mean resources and space are tied up longer, creating more pressure on an already strained system.
“It’s really important that these families are connected to services because we don’t want them to be in a shelter for a long time. We want to figure out how we can get them out and get them housed again, and hopefully get them on their way and more stable and back to doing life,” King said.
The impact of investment
An influx of federal funds into homeless resources during the pandemic offered King a glimpse of having enough investment to see homeless numbers drop.
At that time, the federal government pumped money into local governments to help with COVID-19 recovery. Between the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, Tarrant County’s homeless service system received $45 million.
$27 million was used for rental assistance, and that investment cut homelessness by 43%, King said.
“We will often want to make it a very complex problem, (and) there are lots of societal structures that lead people to homelessness,” King said. “However, I think that (funding) showed that when you’re able to keep people housed and provide them with stable housing, homelessness does go down. So that was significant for us.”
But the federal cash could soon be running out.
Now, rental assistance funding is back to pre-pandemic levels, which amounts to less than $1 million a year, King said.
And on Sept. 5, Tarrant County Commissioners cut about $14.6 million from its previously allocated ARPA dollars for affordable housing. Housing advocates criticized the move, including King.
“If we are going to invest millions of dollars in a building, it needs to be in housing,” King said. “That is a solution to homelessness.”
Other federal funds, such as CARES Act dollars, have already been exhausted. The city of Fort Worth used over $6.8 million in federal funds to offer emergency rental assistance, assist shelters and provide rapid re-housing services that include identifying housing and offering rent and move-in assistance, as well as case management.
The influx of federal dollars during the pandemic allows the city to invest in major housing projects otherwise unattainable that helped families and residents dealing with homelessness, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said.
“I think our city staff, especially led by neighborhood services, have been very proactive in understanding those were one-time dollars,” Parker said. “Let’s utilize them for important projects we otherwise wouldn’t have had money to fund, which we did.”
The city is allocating funding for homelessness services in its 2024 budget. That includes $8.7 million for the neighborhood services department, which houses the city’s homelessness program, Directions Home. The Homeless Rapid Exit Program, which is overseen by Directions Home, received an additional $500,000 to its existing $3 million budget. It also includes $2 million for the city’s priority repair program, which helps homeowners with repairs to their houses, keeping them in their current homes.
The code compliance department also received $583,000 to add three officers and new equipment to its homeless outreach team. The police department also will add four new officers to its HOPE team, at a cost of about $433,000.
Investing in these programs allows the city to address family homelessness at its root and prevent people from falling off the edge in the first place, Parker said.
“At a high level, you can’t solve homelessness without housing,” Parker said.
The city will still find ways to fund long-term housing projects, even without a flood of federal cash, she added.
“We always have done that. We were incredibly smart, this council and the council before us, in making sure we were funding projects that were the right affordable housing models,” Parker said.
For King, investing in housing is not just about taking people off the streets — it’s an investment in Fort Worth’s growth.
“The investments we choose to make today are going to impact the future. … What is the domino effect of us either addressing it or not addressing it and how can you address it?” King said. “You’re asking us to solve big social problems that our community faces. However, we’re expected to do it on a zero-based budget.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ssadek19.
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