More than Homeless

Nestled in the shadow of monstrous overpasses and buzzing highways, Cypress Street is in a part of Fort Worth that has long since died. For the most part, the small back alley is devoid of traffic. Instead, it is teeming with people – men and women, black and white, young and old. They line the sidewalks and spill out onto the blacktop. Some happily chat in groups while others sit quietly by themselves. They are all waiting for the same thing – 5 p.m.

“I don’t know why they are here so early,” Stacey Parker said, her bright green trench coat pulled tight against the cold. “Some of them come to hang out, others just have no where else to go.”

Parker is a case worker at the Presbyterian Night Shelter, a beacon of hope for the homeless of Cypress Street. Every evening at 5 p.m., the shelter opens its doors to anyone who wants a place to stay and a hot meal, no questions asked.

“We cater to the lowest common denominator of the homeless population,” Parker said. “Other shelters require that you be in one of their programs or have some sort of special conditions; we take anyone.”

A growing problem

In the past five years, the Fort Worth homeless population has grown larger. According to a 2006 United Way report, the number of men and women on the street has increased from 4,375 in 2000 to 5,278 in 2004.

The homeless population is also diversifying. The fastest-growing demographics are young children and adults over 55 years old. The United Way reports the number of Fort Worth homeless children grew more than 25 percent in the past two years.

It is difficult enough to address the numbers, but the many special needs rapidly surfacing among the homeless population are causing problems for shelters everywhere.

Places like Presbyterian Night are often expected to care for problems beyond its capabilities.

“One of the biggest new problems we have is single fathers with children,” Parker said as she made her way through the rapidly growing group of bystanders. In an attempt to meet the needs of its patrons, the Presbyterian Night Shelter has evolved from a single structure to a campus of buildings, each with a specific task.

To get in, residents must pass through a metal detector and cannot have drugs or alcohol with them.

“If they are found with drugs or alcohol in the building they are kicked out,” Parker said. She opened the green metal door of the main structure and was about to enter when shouts broke out behind her.

The people

“Hey everyone, it’s Stacey!” exclaimed a man in his mid-40s as he flashed a toothy grin. “Happy birthday, Stacey!”

The crowd broke out into spontaneous applause and laughter.

“Steve, you know it’s not my birthday,” she replied calmly and disappeared behind the door.

Parker knows almost all the residents by name. She is the only case worker for the entire facility.

“We are hoping to hire three more in the next few months,” she explained during a tour of the facility. “We want to try more positive reinforcement to help these people do better for themselves.”

Past the security guards and the dining facility, the night shelter is divided into three main sections. On the left is the men’s ward.

The population spans all walks of life. From the second floor, an onlooker can see the entire ward. Half of the cold cement floor is covered in plastic mats for the transient residents. Some men sit complacently reading the newspaper while others walk in aimless circles around the room. Against two walls are rows of black metal bunks, covered in a veritable rainbow of blankets and comforters.

“The mats are for our evening residents, and then the bunk beds and lockers are for our more permanent residents,” Parker said. If they can show they have a night job, they can rent a bed for $50 a month and stay in during the day.”

On the right side of the building are the women’s and older men’s areas. The women’s ward is almost identical to the men’s but slightly smaller. About one-third of the area is sectioned off and reserved for men over 60. They have a lounge with a television and single beds where they can keep their personal belongings.

“I have lived here since April, and pretty much everybody gets along,” said J.D. Hart, seated on a chipped metal folding chair next to his overflowing bed.

Hart, a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he likes the shelter for the moment but that it does not meet all his needs.

“I am diabetic so I have to take all these medicines,” he said, dumping a backpack of pill bottles out on the floor. “I am glad I get them from the V.A. hospital because there is no dispensary here.”

The shelter provides residents with basic necessities like aspirin and hygiene products, but it does not have a pharmacy or medical center. The only time residents can get prescription medication is if they are assigned to Safe Haven, the mental health treatment center of the shelter.

“Even though it sounds like it would be a battered women’s shelter, it is not,” Parker said. “If we notice a member of our general population appears to have some mental problems, we will try and move them over there if we have an opening.”

Unlike other mental facilities, she said, patients at Safe Haven are not forced to take their prescriptions.

“A lot of times that scares them so what we try to do is gain their trust,” Parker said. “After a while we can usually get them to agree to treatment.”

The Safe Haven building is reminiscent of a large house. The foyer has a fireplace and arm chairs, as well as a computer and television for residents to use. Although the facility is new and well-built, it can only serve 20 people at a time.

A safe haven

“The largest problems for the homeless population are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression,” said Rebecca Cox, who has worked at Safe Haven for five years.

Unfortunately, free mental health facilities like Safe Haven have also become dumping grounds for people whom prisons, nursing homes and even hospitals no longer wish to house.

“Anyone they don’t know what to do with they send here,” Cox said. “One day, I saw a van from a nursing home, with its logo real big on the side, pull up, roll out a man in a wheel chair and just – zoom – drive off.”

Although she said she did not remember the name of the nursing home, elderly residents often end up on the shelter’s doorstep. The shelter has no geriatric care facility, but the staff tries to make arrangements for them at the main shelter.

“Right now we have an 81-year-old down here in our main women’s population,” Parker said.

Elderly residents are not forced to leave during the day, she said.

The elderly are not the only people who are dumped off on Cypress Street.

“A lot of parolees will list the shelter as their residence, and they will get paroled here,” said Parker. “They have to have a residence to get paroled, and the police are fine with them listing the shelter.”

She said hospitals and other care facilities also send discharged patients without friends or family to the shelter. When people have no place else to go, they end up at Presbyterian Night.

Presbyterian Night Shelter is filled to capacity almost every evening.

Homeless organizations such as the United Way predict that with increasing unemployment rates and high prices of housing, Fort Worth homeless numbers will continue to increase over the next few years.

Parker and employees of the other city shelters will continue to cope with the numbers as best they can. However, when the weather turns colder, the crowds outside the main door will continue to grow.