With eyes on the homeless battle underway in Austin, locals are noticing a similar impoverished community in their own backyard.
“We try to create an environment that’s safe — we’ll feed you, clothe you, you can have a warm bed and you have the right to feel safe, that somebody cares, with no hidden agendas,” Good Shepherd Mission executive director Dave Smith said.
The Good Shepherd Mission – a private, faith-based, non-profit located off of MLK Drive in Huntsville – provides a wide array of resources to the local community facing extreme poverty, the shelter being just one of many services offered.
From helping clients obtain birth certificates and counseling, to providing micro business loans, the mission helps remove barriers from people’s lives that might be inhibiting them from moving on to lead successful and self-sufficient futures outside of the shelter.
“We may be doing a lot of harm, because we give people everything instead of expecting them to do something … a lot of people, because of false fears or guilt, decide to throw money at issues when they’re just creating a worse issue,” Smith said.
Resources such as counseling and substance abuse recovery are provided locally through the mission, with an emphasis on work assistance so that they can “fish for life” – a reference to the saying, “if you teach a man to fish, he will never go hungry.”
“Biblically speaking, you find out what true grace is, and you can take time off from life to get yourself back together,” Smith said.
Smith notes that the coat bank and food bank are the two biggest contributions that GSM gives to the community, adding that the mission not only helps the homeless, but those of poverty as well.
Shelter meals, a food pantry, lodging, a family re-building ministry, clothing, medicine, and furniture/housewares assistance are also available to those facing poverty and in need of a little help keeping their heads above water.
While reported rates may be inflated due to the prison system, Huntsville faces a poverty rate of 34.4% compared to 11.8% nationwide according to 2018 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. As colder temperatures approach, coats, blankets and rain gear are needed as well as foods that are appropriate for soups and stews to be served in the shelter kitchen.
“Huntsville is growing, the needs are getting greater, people just don’t know we’re here doing everything that we do,” Smith said.
While the homeless population may be rising, Smith said that the number of people seeking out their services has stayed steady over the years, however their situations have changed. More geriatric clients are coming forward in need of help due to an expensive healthcare system and increase in rent in Huntsville.
Councilwoman Dee Howard Mullins said that the local homeless community has increased and, as a Huntsville native, she has never seen as many housing disadvantaged individuals as she is seeing now.
“Affordable housing is a major thing in Huntsville, we have plenty of apartments that are going up, but those apartments are targeted for our college kids who can pay $700-800 a month for a one bedroom apartment, because the market will allow that. But if I’m minimum wage, that’s really not a great option for me,” Mullins said.
The councilwoman also notes that individuals from neighboring areas who have lost their hospitals have migrated to Huntsville seeking access to medical care, even when they may have no place to stay. A lack of mental health treatment options may also be to blame, though, like Smith, she attributes a lack of education to be a key factor contributing to homelessness in the area.
“The real root of poverty has to do with the destruction of a family and the lack of education, those two are the biggest factors,” Smith said.
Smith has found that statistically, 87% of the mission’s clients come from homes with no male role model or father figure, while 85% of the house-hold heads have no more than an 11th grade education.
“If you combine those two things, chances are that they are going to be in absolute poverty, and that’s homelessness as well,” Smith said.
According to 2013-2017 figures from the Census Bureau, only 83.6% of the Huntsville population over the age of 25 has a high school diploma.
“If you don’t have the education, you don’t have the skills to move up, to get specialized jobs, and that just keeps you in this cycle of poverty,” said Howard Mullins. “Sometimes it becomes this generational thing that is hard for people to break loose.”
HISD works with at-risk students who are currently experiencing poverty and homelessness to ensure a proper education, reducing their risk of continuing a life of poverty.
“Our students who are suffering from insecure living arrangements often try to stay in the shadows and stay invisible due to fear and embarrassment; however, our teachers, counselors, administrators and community advocates are very good at getting assistance for these children through the HISD Social Service Department,” HISD superintendent Dr. Scott Sheppard said.
Homelessness for students is not always as clear cut as living on the street or under bridges. Students living in tents, cars, RV parks, local shelters, motels, “couch-hopping” or “surfing” with friends are other common situations, the most common being a “doubled-up” living arrangement in which multiple families live together in one space.
“Homelessness impacts students in different ways. Some homeless students may exhibit behavioral concerns, hoard food, or miss numerous days of school,” Sheppard said.
“I think it’s a matter of our community losing its sense of community … 30-40 years ago, we understood that it took a community to raise a child and if this one child was not doing well in school, it became everybody’s problem,” Howard Mullins said.
The councilwoman continued that local churches were once more connected to communities and vice versa. Howard Mullins encourages everyone to be engaged, to volunteer, to encourage our kids to get a high school diploma, parents to get a GED, and to know that there are resources available to those in need.
“Homelessness and poverty is not just that person’s problem, it’s the community’s problem and it will impact the total community. We all have to work together to address it by providing opportunity and encouragement to the individuals and families that are most impacted by this,” said Howard Mullins.