Coalition targets homelessness in county

President of ECHC speaks to Commissioners’ Court on efforts to help housing-endangered

Bill Spinks
Midlothian Mirror
SAGU student volunteers help prepare lunch for the Ellis County Homeless Coalition’s “Lunch and Learn” event last September. The coalition recently received 501c3 non-profit designation and is stepping up efforts to provide service to those without homes or in danger of losing housing.

Homelessness in Ellis County may not always be in plain sight, but it exists, and the Ellis County Homeless Coalition stands ready to help those who have lost their homes or are in danger of it.

James Bell, president of the Ellis County Homeless Coalition, last week gave a presentation to the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court on the state of homelessness in the county and on the coalition’s initiatives. The coalition recently obtained designation as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization.

Bell said four years ago, Ellis County citizens began to meet to address the county’s homeless population. Representatives from non-profit organizations, civic organizations and churches organized as a local coalition to perform the annual homeless count in January for the Texas Homeless Network.

This count, performed nationwide, provides the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development the information needed to administer federal and state funding to counties, non-profit agencies and hospitals for indigent care.

“We have grown both as an organization and in our homeless counts,” Bell said. “Today our local homeless coalition … has been given the designation as a continued-care agency for Ellis County.”

Bell told the court that in the last count in January 2020, Ellis County had 74 people experiencing homelessness, either unsheltered or in a temporary shelter. However, as of Jan. 29, 2020, there were 435 Ellis County students classified as homeless in the county’s 11 school districts.

For 2021, the count was about half of the previous year’s number because of restrictive procedures in collecting data during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bell said the number of homeless living in hotels increased in the most recent count.

Answering a question from Precinct 1 Commissioner Randy Stinson, Bell later added that the coalition uses emergency funds to pay for keeping homeless in hotels, and that a large number of homeless are living out of their vehicles as well.

A new category has been created that tallies the number of households or individuals who are working but either homeless or in danger of losing their homes, which carries the acronym ALICE, or “Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed.” These are often literally one paycheck from being on the street, and often have no funds available for other necessities such as car repairs or health care. Bell said this count is available on the United Way of West Ellis County website.

Bell said the Ellis County Homeless Coalition now has the responsibility of not only conducting the annual homeless count, but also to provide support services to help those who are homeless or on the verge of being homeless.

Since February’s winter storm, Bell said the coalition has assisted 74 people with needs related to housing and homelessness, and has conducted online eviction court watches of the county’s four Justice of the Peace courts. The coalition also provides aid and remediation for Texas rent relief and eviction diversion programs.

“We are now the lead agency responsible for collecting and monitoring the data using HUD’s homeless management information system for representative Ellis County non-profits and agencies to access federal and state funds that we have not had access to before,” Bell said.

Within the year, Bell said, the Ellis County Homeless Coalition will be able to file for federal funding on behalf of other agencies to assist with projects that address affordable housing, temporary shelters and housing vouchers to supplement rent.

One agency the coalition is presently working with is Serenity Veterans Village, which Bell said is the only veterans’ homeless shelter in the Metroplex area. A program in Ennis, ACROSS, provides interim housing to local families and individuals who are homeless.

A new organization called Anchor House was formed by First Baptist Church of Midlothian and is located in Waxahachie serving women over age 50. Other established local programs to help the homeless include Daniel’s Den in Waxahachie, as well as a tent encampment near Palmer for homeless men.

The Ellis County Homeless Coalition will hold a “Project Shelter” fundraising walkathon on Saturday, Oct. 16 that will begin and end at Railyard Park in Waxahachie. The walkathon will extend 7.8 miles and will include the Hike & Bike Trail while passing through Getzendaner Park. Bell said the goal is to raise $250,000 for an emergency night shelter.