Members of Denison churches came together Thursday afternoon to find ways to better serve and assist the city’s homeless population. These ideas included the creation of a new facility that could bring together the many services offered for the homeless across the city.
The meeting follows the dispersal of at least one homeless camp by Denison officials in March that resulted in efforts by churches to find more permanent assistance for the homeless in the city. Thursday’s meeting also allowed organizers to recruit for the new Homeless Empowerment Action Team and create a network of volunteers
“We are honored here at Waples to serve alongside other churches and a soup kitchen, ” Waples Memorial United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Cheryl Murphy said.
More than 120 representatives for more than 16 churches and other organizations gathered at Waples for the meeting with city leadership, including Mayor Janet Gott, City Manager Jud Rex and members of the Denison City Council. Among the topics discussed was a building that could provide multiple services for the area’s homeless population ranging from transitional housing and laundry to social services assistance.
Gwen Braxton, from Greater Coffey Memorial Church, said organizers were looking to find somewhere to bring the many services are offered across the city into one facility. As an example, Braxton mentioned a soup kitchen that is offered by Center Cross Ministries along Owings Street.
Braxton said she met Denison’s homeless problem head-on a few weeks ago while driving down Rusk. Rather than passing it up, Braxton said she stopped to see if she could help.
“(It was) 12:18 on a Monday afternoon and there was a family camping,” she said. “I had somewhere to be, and I am sure you all had somewhere to be, but when we see those sights in our city, our call to action is to do something.”
Organizers for the meeting said Denison placed notices at several homeless camps around the city in mid-March informing people they were trespassing and had until March 21 to leave the property or face arrest. Micah Blevins, missions and outreach coordinator for Waples, said the notices were attached to tents at camps near the viaduct and another near the Eisenhower birthplace.
“When they got the notices, they came here for help — ‘What do we do? Where do we go,’” Blevins said earlier this month, adding that the church has a homeless outreach program.
The cause is a personal one for Blevins, who was homeless for several years following home issues in her teens. Blevins said she has spent time in prison, dealt with substance abuse and not having a warm place to stay over the years.
“I am one of them,” she said. “Part of me is in every one of them.”
Blevins estimated Denison has about 112 homeless people living in the city based on surveys of the soup kitchen. However, this number does not include any homeless children, she said.
City leaders said the notice was only posted at one camp, located near Owings and Crockett, following concerns ranging from noise to damage that were raised related to people camping in the area. The city received permission from the Texas Northeastern Railroad to enforce its trespassing regulations on the property.
Blevins said church leaders started collaborating on a solution to the displaced homeless following the eviction. These conversations ultimately led Coffey Memorial to rent a property where a camp could be set up. This new site could have room for as many as 15 residents, Blevins said.
Blevins said she was approached by city leaders, who noted that the camp must have running water and electricity. These services were already available at the campsite, Blevins said.
As of Thursday, Blevins said the camp has been under the oversight of Coffey Memorial and currently has six residents. Blevins noted the camp site likely would not fit for the more permanent facility unless significant finances were acquired.
Rex, who spoke on behalf of the city, said it was positive to see so many Denisonians come together for the cause. However, the first step will be to determine who will lead this effort, he said. The next step will be to determine what the specific problem is and find the right solution.
“If we have a Texas-sized problem, we don’t need a Rhode Island-sized solution or vice versa,” Rex said.
Blevins said she was happy to see the city speak at the event, but said she would like to hear more about how it can assist. This assistance could come in the form of donated land or a building, or some form of financial incentive, she said.
The next step for organizers will be a second action meeting that will be held on May 1. In the interim, Blevins said HEAT is working to obtain its non-profit status and raise funds for the project.
How should the city address its homeless population? Let Michael Hutchins, the local government reporter for the Herald Democrat know at firstname.lastname@example.org or @mhutchinsHD on Twitter.