Featured in The Commercial Appeal
By Sarah Macaraeg
How to end homelessness: Memphis aid providers talk causes and solutions
When Tamara Hendrix began teaching pre-school, she wasn't worried about her low pay. She had recently graduated from Christian Brothers University, and found her job, at a daycare serving families affected by HIV, rewarding.
"I was concentrated on getting the children well and being able to be in a space that was safe for them," Hendrix recalled from the living room of her house in the Douglas neighborhood of north Memphis.
But when Hendrix lost that job, she also lost her apartment and was soon living in her car with her son.
After years of getting back on her feet, suffering a second job loss and then becoming homeless again, Hendrix has made her way back to a stable-housing situation.
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And her work, as the lead organizer for the grassroots organization Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, known as HOPE, is again focused on serving people often stigmatized.
Alongside other homeless assistance providers across the city, Hendrix will be leading a team of people to conduct an annual count of homeless Memphians on January 22.
Called the "Point-In-Time" count, the volunteer-powered operation sends people out across the city to survey everyone living in a place not meant for human habitation that they can find. The count is mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds much of the available homeless services that operate along a "Continuum of Care".
One-time relief designed to prevent homelessness, such as rent, food or utility assistance, represents one end of the continuum. Providing a person with permanent housing and support represents the other, more sustained, end of the work.
“It's not always about drugs and alcohol. It's about life situations. You can't turn it around quick enough. You don't have that extra help. You don't have that support system.” Tamara Hendrix, Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality
With the 2020 count at hand, Hendrix and other advocates encourage the broader community to consider not just the number of people who are currently homeless, but underlying causes and solutions as well.
In Hendrix's case, the solution entailed more than an admonition to 'get a job'. "I was there every day for a year," she said of a former job center.
Meanwhile, she was separated from her son, who moved in with his dad when she could no longer shelter him. The emotional turmoil of that and the job losses hit her hard. "I had issues with mental health as well," she said. "How to deal with that and cope with that."
Hendrix said she felt like a failure — until she connected with an advocate. "She took me to the shelter, paid for my shelter fees, got me on my feet, got me access to disability," Hendrix said. "And I've been on track ever since."
Now, on the hotline HOPE operates, she said she gets a lot of calls from other single mothers. "It's not always about drugs and alcohol," Hendrix said. "It's about life situations. You can't turn it around quick enough. You don't have that extra help. You don't have that support system."
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Reconsidering who experiences homelessness and why
Multiple Memphis-area service providers echoed two key facets of Hendrix's story: It can be easy for financial instability to evolve quickly into homelessness. And it can be difficult — for anyone — to get out of it.
They said clients they've served include people with bachelor's and master's degrees; several hundred families whose housing was a casualty of the 2008 predatory-lending crisis; and working people whose low wages don't earn enough income to absorb spikes in utility bills, medical expenses or car trouble.
For Mary Hamlett, vice president of Family Programs for the Metropolitan Interfaith Association, known as MIFA, homelessness can't be understood without considering the lack of a common starting point in attempting to achieve the American Dream.
In 2019, 78 percent of all people experiencing homelessness who were counted identified as Black or African-American.
"People are supposed to pull themselves by their bootstraps," Hamlett said. "But for many people in this country, because of history, because of who they are, how they look, they never got the boots. They just didn't."
Issues with discrimination continue, said Stephanie Bell, program director for OUTMemphis' Metamorphosis Project, serving homeless LGBTQ youth. Bell says inclusive places of employment are not exactly abundant.
"Most jobs are not affirming to the LGBTQ community, so it makes it harder for my trans youth to gain employment," she said. The count encompassed four people who identified as transgender in 2019.
Mass transit: 'We're not doing good enough'
Complicating everything is a shortage of transit, multiple advocates said.
"A lot of times people get jobs and the front end costs of making it to work ends up causing them not to be successful," Hamlett said of client experiences at MIFA.
The organization, which serves families, provided 600 bus passes while helping over 4,000 families its last fiscal year. For homeless individuals, Catholic Charities of West Tennessee is one of the main providers, assisting around 600 households its last fiscal year.
Dana Brooks, director of Housing Ministries, said she repeatedly encounters transit as a barrier to potential employment. "If that's what's preventing you from becoming a successful stable person in this community, we're not doing good enough," she said.
92 people with no housing
As of January 13, Brooks said there were 92 people on a wait list for housing that's coordinated by all of the HUD-funded local agencies.
"As it stands now, we don't have enough inventory in the city to meet the needs of every person we assess. And that goes for families too. That's not just singles. And that's why we are constantly fighting for more funds, basically," Brooks said.
The Community Alliance for the Homeless serves as the lead agency for coordination among HUD-funded organizations and in conducting the count.
“Homelessness is, at its base, the most visible form of the people society has failed and that systems have failed.” Grant Ebbesmeyer, Community Alliance for the Homeless
A coordinator with the organization, Grant Ebbesmeyer has led planning for the January 22 Point-In-Time count. "A lot of people think that there's a ton of resources out there and that it's free flowing," he said. "But prevention is barely anything. There's not much help there before someone ends up on the street."
That's part of the reason why, Ebbesmeyer said, in his view, "Homelessness is, at its base, the most visible form of the people society has failed and that systems have failed."
The visibility that's recorded during the annual Point-In-Time count represents a sample of people experiencing homelessness rather than exhaustive accounting, given HUD's framework, which only counts people who are in a place unfit for human habitation, at the specific point in time. Examples of exclusions include people in hospitals and those who are couch-surfing.
At the time of the January 2019 Point-In-Time count, 1,325 people experiencing homelessness were surveyed. The vast majority, 96%, were in shelters or transitional housing. Only 1 percent were chronically homeless. More than a quarter were children under 18, including four unaccompanied minors.
Since many homeless youth do couch-surf, their numbers can be hard to track, said Bell. Among them, LGBTQ youth face a distinct level of harm.
According to a 2019 Homelessness Policy Research Institute report: LGBTQ youth are anywhere from 2 to 13 times more likely to be homeless than other youth. They are less likely to seek shelter because of discrimination, but more likely to experience violence on the street.
OutMemphis began conducting a Youth Count alongside the main Point-In-Time count every year, with the help of volunteers. And later this spring, the group will begin to provide emergency shelter space for four LGBTQ youth, 18-24, and a drop-in center offering meals and showers to additional youth.
LGBTQ youth: Homeless shelter for Memphis youth opening spring 2020
Solutions: Shelters, wages and prevention
Tamara Hendrix, the organizer for HOPE, said she'd build a shelter too if she could — one that was free and without restrictions on time. Because shelter check-in requirements can be as early as 3 pm, they often don't accommodate job hours. As a result, Hendrix said, some men work at night and sleep outside during the day.
At Catholic Charities, where visitors can access health care, immigration and a food pantry in addition to homelessness assistance, Brooks said that having housing on site would be a game changer.
She also thinks public education on costs is in order. "It costs millions of dollars a year to cover the cost of someone experiencing homelessness, between crisis utilization, ambulatory, emergency rooms, prisons — it's a fortune," Brooks said. Whereas it can cost less than $30,000 a year to house someone, she said.
She and Hamlett also cite the the efficiency of earlier, versus later, intervention. MIFA offers an array of emergency services, such as food vouchers, mediation of arrangements between family members, and utility assistance — the key indicator of a potential spiral into homelessness, according to Hamlett.
But city and federal regulations require a person or family to be literally homeless, or imminently facing homelessness with a writ of eviction, to receive that help.
Ultimately, for prevention, Hamlett said, "We know it's about decent wages and affordable housing."
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'You're not alone'
For people currently experiencing housing instability or homelessness, Hendrix says to keep fighting.
"Let yourself give up for a minute — don't let yourself give up forever."
Brooks also encourages people to remember they're not alone. "They may have heard 'No' a lot of times or 'They don't qualify,'" she said. "But if you get connected to the right advocacy, someone is willing to fight ... There are options."
To view available resources by category, visit www.memphishomelessoptions.org. The HOPE hotline can be reached at 901-300-0006. MIFA's 24-hour family hotline is 901-529-4545. Catholic Charities's local intake number is 901-722-4702. OUTMemphis can be contacted via www.outmemphis.org/contact. Sarah Macaraeg can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @seramak.