This summer when temperatures sweltered, I often found myself at the downtown library, where I indulged my latest passion: genealogy research. I almost always encountered the homeless, either outside the gates or downstairs, where they utilized the computers while enjoying the comfort of air-conditioning. Over the course of my visits, I occasionally would strike up a conversation with a few who wanted to talk, asking them how they survived on the street. I could not understand how it was possible.
It was a warm Tuesday in September when I drove east on Lancaster Avenue and turned right onto Cypress Street, just east of downtown, the Omni Hotel in my driver’s side mirror glistening in the morning sun. Today was the first of several days of conversations with a few of Fort Worth’s homeless, at places like True Worth (a day shelter), the Presbyterian Night Shelter (PNS), an underpass near the PNS, and, finally, downtown at the Central Library. A common thread weaves through the backgrounds of many — drugs, alcohol, abuse both physical and sexual, a lack of stability in their early years, and, in more than one instance, abandonment by one or both parents during childhood. I met a struggling author, a woman who drinks vodka from a paper cup at 10 a.m. every day, a grown man who hesitates to let me photograph him because he still fears his abusive mother will find him, and a woman who somehow survives the street with only 30-percent eyesight and 30-percent hearing. I discovered an unmarried woman — a woman who had slept in a field the night before — eagerly awaiting the birth of her fifth child while her own mother rears her first four children, all under the age of 10. I also saw intelligence, humility, and kindness — and, yes, in some cases, bitterness and the need to blame others for their situation. But the dominant attribute was the belief that circumstances would improve — hope and optimism maintain spirits. These are their stories, told in their voices.
Rachel, 28, with Chris, 43
“My real parents were poor and were on welfare, so I was adopted by a widow. Her name was Kay. She got me more for the money she could get than anything else. My stepfather raped me when I was real little. Yes, you may think I don’t remember, but I do. He threw a beer bottle at me and once tried to drown me. I’m sexually a female, but mentally I’m a man. I know that’s hard to understand. I’m a small girl, but I will defend anybody despite my size. Chris and me spent last night under the overpass by the night shelter. We had a plastic bag to help us keep dry. You put up with the nonsense all day long. Long lines to get anything and walk everywhere to get in line. So many services that helped us have closed down. They even barricaded the one outside water fountain that was near the shelter.” Due to vandalism, it was in repair for a short time. “The administration is like cavemen rubbing two sticks together. In December 2016, I tried to commit suicide. The worst thing that has happened to me is I lose my faith in God at times, and the best is me meeting Chris. We met on the streets of Fort Worth about a year ago. Chris grew up in Medina, Texas, but he left when he was in his teens. If I can ever get on my feet, I always wanna give back to those who helped me. And now I have a goal. I want to meet [Harry Potter author] J.K. Rowling. If she can handwrite a book on paper, I think I can too. I want to write my life. Never judge a book by its cover but by its content.”
Richell, 50 approximately
Ricki, her nickname, wanted to tell her story, but she was not comfortable with me taking her picture or sharing her exact age. However, she showed me her stomach where she had been bitten by bedbugs at the shelter the previous night. With her gray hair pulled into a tight ponytail and sky-blue eyes, I caught a glimpse of youth but only for a moment. When she smiled, her toothless grin and the etches around her eyes announced her age.
“I lived in Fort Worth for about eight years now, come down from Oklahoma. I walked the first few miles and then caught a ride down. When the weather’s not bad, I don’t go to the shelter. I usually sleep on a pool mattress in a field not too far from here. I get some of my meals at the church mission. Being homeless is harder than holding down a full-time job. Just going back and forth getting things done and figuring out the next meal and where I’ll sleep tonight takes a lot of time. It’s not easy. But, heck, I got all I need. I get water from a gas station close by, and I can bathe pretty good in the sink. What else do I really need? If they would just give us some place to go where we wouldn’t get run off, that would work for me. I learned a long time ago to not want too much in life, just be happy with what I got. When I pass people on the street, sometimes they will look above me or below me or to the side of me, but many of them don’t ever look at me. I don’t know if they are ashamed or they are ashamed for me.”
“I was born in Rochester, New York, but my parents moved to Florida when I was 2. I never got along with my mother, and my dad was an alcoholic, so at age 11, I became a runaway. I was a child who would not mind. I own up to that. I met a guy in Florida. He was five years older, and he wanted to come to Dallas, not sure why Dallas, but that’s where we ended up. Mike was his name, and he was my first love. I started stripping at age 16 at the Million Dollar Club on Northwest Highway. They asked me how old I was, and I told them 18, but they never really checked. It was a hard life at first, but it got easier, and the tips were good. I was earning good money, but then we’d go and spend it all on drugs — acid, you name it. We did it all. When I was 17, an older man, a lot older, maybe 50, told me I could make some really good money if I’d go to a private party he was hosting and strip there. I got in his car. He took me out to some country road and raped me and then threw me out of the car. Mike and I broke up about that time, and, after a while, I ended up marrying an older man, about 20 years older, but he got into trouble and went to prison, so his son gave me a place to live over on Race Street here in Fort Worth. Then he went to prison too — drugs, I think. That was eight years ago, and that’s when I first went to the night shelter. I can’t believe it’s been eight years I’ve been homeless. The night shelter has its problems. I’ve helped unload the food trucks myself, and I see steak and other meat coming off, but mostly what they serve is pasta and rice. I don’t know where the good stuff is going. I am an alcoholic. This cup right here has vodka in it. I drink a lot of vodka every day. I donate plasma to get the money to buy it. The worst thing that has happened to me here on the streets is I got raped over by Lancaster and Riverside. There’s a place called ‘The Rocks’ where people sit around and talk and drink. It’s well known to the homeless. The best thing that has happened to me is I met Lonnie. He and I are a pair, and the other thing that keeps me going is my phone. I don’t know how anyone can survive out here without a phone. How can you even apply for a job without a phone number? I go to Broadway Baptist and the Methodist Church mission for food and clothes. There used to be a day called ‘Tramp Day’ where citizens and churches would bring clothing and food and other stuff to a park close to the shelter, but now that is forbidden. They no longer come. We need low-income housing. I say come walk a mile in my shoes before you judge me, but all that bad stuff, back then and now, doesn’t define who I am. I have a gratitude list. I write down what I’m grateful for each day. The first one every morning is ‘I woke up.’ My second is I’m grateful for Lonnie.”
“I was born in England, a military dad, but we moved around a lot, first Florida, then Ohio, and finally Mississippi. I graduated high school there. That’s when things started going south. I joined the Marines because I thought I could go places I hadn’t gone and be somebody I hadn’t been. I was standing in a cafeteria lunch line one day, and a recruiter talked me into it, told me how it would change my life. I graduated boot camp in San Diego, but I got kicked out for smoking weed. Others did it too, but I was the one who got caught. That was in my early 20s. I decided to move back to my father’s home in Georgia, but that sure didn’t work out, so I decided to start traveling. I stayed with one of my Marine buddies out in Blythe, California, for a bit. We got an apartment together, but that didn’t work out either. Then I roamed over to Phoenix and stayed with another Marine buddy for a while. Finally, I wound up in Erie, Pennsylvania, with an aunt, but she had so many rules I just could not follow, so I left and went back to Ohio, a place I remembered as a kid. That’s when I first became homeless. After a year or so, I moved down to Mansfield, where I got a job with a moving company. I liked the job, and I lived with my boss for a while, but on June 26th of this year –– I remember it well –– he decided I was through, and he gave me a ride to downtown Fort Worth. I think he thought I would have better services here. I stayed in the night shelter for a while. I’m trying to get into a program now where I have my own cot and my own locker, but it’s hard. There’s a line for everything, and there’s a lot of wannabe gangsters there. It’s infected with roaches and bedbugs. Everyone is not treated the same at the shelter. It took me a long time to realize that. The staff has its favorites. I always thought if you work at a homeless shelter for money, surely you want to help people – that’s not always true. I’ve heard some say it takes years to get housing. Affordable housing is nonexistent in Fort Worth. I’ve asked my father to help me, but he won’t. A lot of where I am today is definitely my fault. My aunt kicking me out is my fault, and I’ve had my fair share of alcohol. But I want people to know I do take responsibility for my life. Not all of us are worthless people who are lazy. I want to work. I want to have a job, but it’s a catch-22.”
“I was born in Boise, Idaho, but moved down to my aunt’s house in Mansfield in my teens. We didn’t get along, so I had to move out about two years ago. That’s when I hit rock bottom, a low that I never thought I would hit. I haven’t been able to climb out. As you can see, I have little sight and hearing.” Theresa read my lips as I asked her questions. “I have a 70-percent sight loss and a 70-percent hearing loss from birth. My disability is permanent. Nothing doctors can do. My friends always called me ‘Helen’ when I was little, ’cause they thought I was like Helen Keller. I don’t understand why, but I’ve been denied at John Peter Smith Hospital. I slept behind the 7-Eleven last night, the one over by 7th Street. A dude kept bothering me, and I had my blade by my side all night. They kinda leave me alone until they find out I’m half-blind and half-deaf. That’s when they take advantage. It’s not dog-eat-dog out here. It’s snake-eat-snake. Sometimes I find a spot under a bridge, especially if it’s raining. I usually try to take a bath in a gas station restroom or maybe a restaurant, until they catch me doing it. The only thing I live for is my daughter. She’s 4 now, but I haven’t seen her since she was 2. My mom is in Oregon, and she has her. She called Child Protective Services on me. My daughter and me was roaming the streets of Fort Worth when she was only 2. The last time I called my mom, she told me that she is telling my daughter I’ve been killed in a car wreck. She said I’d be better off in a dump with my head cut off. My caseworker at the night shelter says they are trying to get me permanent housing and that they’ll call me, but how are they going to call me if I don’t have a phone number? I made a good friend at the 7-Eleven, a woman who is nice. She tells me not to give up. You can’t imagine how that one thing, having somebody who is nice to me, lifts me up and keeps me going. It’s exhausting walking everywhere. I usually don’t have the money for a bus pass. The system is so messed up. Now I know why there are so many addicts our here. We are not gods. Drugs help you get through the low times. I wish I could talk to the mayor. I would tell her you come and walk out here in my shoes for one day, with only what you think you need in one backpack. And walk everywhere you need to go, in cold and hot weather, no way to communicate. I wanna get a job so bad, but who will hire somebody without even a phone number, and who will hire somebody who can hardly see or hear? If I ever get a job and get back on my feet, I swear the first thing I’ll do is I will pay it forward and lend a helping hand. Sure, it’s nice to be able to afford the necessities, but really money is just trees and metal. I wish I could do a television show like Wife Swap, where some rich person trades places with a homeless person for one day.”
Vanessa, 30, with Samuel, 20
I found Vanessa and Samuel in the downtown library one Friday morning, sitting in the large room on the main floor surrounded by artful photographs, both heads slumped — one drowsing, the other staring at the floor. I spoke with Vanessa.
“I was born in Virginia, but my real mom just walked out and left me in the hospital. They told me they put my picture on milk cartons and in newspapers, trying to find her, but I never knew who she was. I was adopted by a foster mother. We moved to Fort Worth when I was 4. Then she and her husband divorced. I went to Lake Worth High School, and after that I worked as a home health care aide for 10 years, taking care of old people and people who couldn’t cook and clean. At first, I had my own apartment, but I lost it, and then I stayed on and off with friends. But that didn’t work out. They started taking advantage of me, making me do more stuff than they should have. I had a baby boy when I was 21. He be 9 now. And then two years later, I had a girl and, after another year, another baby girl. And I got a 1-year old boy, too. I don’t have custody, though. My mama’s in Weatherford, and she takes care of all four of them. They all have different daddies. The daddy of my 1-year old is in jail now for beating me. I got a two-year protective order against him if he gets out. Me and Samuel’s excited about this new baby coming in February. It’s his first. We met at the church around the corner where they serve food. Last night we slept in a big field over by Henderson and Peach, but then the mowers came this morning and ran us off. I never thought I’d be homeless. My mother, the one I call my mother, always taught me to depend on myself and no one else. Being on the street is hard, harder than anyone knows, mostly hard on women. I’ve been almost raped several times. Samuel and me may go back to our field to sleep tonight, but we’ll probably go over by Taco Bell. They let us use the bathroom there. I don’t know where we’ll go when the baby comes, but we’re happy about it. Samuel grew up near Troup, Texas. His parents were both drug addicts, so he ended up in a kids’ home in Tyler. He told me everything in his life was going pretty good until his grandmother died when he was 13. His grandmother used to visit him in the home, but one day he got into a fight protecting his younger brother and ended up in jail for aggravated assault. He’s been on the street now for almost three years. His mother’s out here, too, somewhere, but he don’t know where. It’s rough here on the streets. Just yesterday, we don’t know who did it, but somebody called the police and said Samuel was beating on me. It wasn’t true, but the police came and threw him against the building. I kept telling them he didn’t do it. If he gets arrested again, the judge said he’d be in there for a long time. We can’t go into any store without somebody thinking we’re stealing or up to no good. They run us off.”
“I was born in California but mostly grew up here in Tarrant County. I got into some trouble for burglary and spent time in a prison in Palestine in East Texas. Got out when I was 29. It’s not some place I want to go back. I have had no contact with my mom since I was little. My dad lives in Richardson, but I haven’t seen him in several years. He got custody of me when I was real little. I had a job, a good job, had my [commercial driver’s license], but I gained a lot of weight, my blood pressure was out of control, and I lost my license. I have a car here at the night shelter, and I lived in it for a while. I’d park it in parking lots like Walmart until they would make me move, but I don’t have any money for gas, so it doesn’t do me any good. I’ve been without a home for two years. I need to get into a program to get housing, but I stand in line here at the shelter to speak with my caseworker, and I keep getting told I don’t meet the requirements. To get a bed here, you have to stand in line starting at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, so even if I had a job, it would be hard to be here to get a bed. It seems like the paid staff here doesn’t like their job. They have their favorites. The favorites get the best food. Most of the days the food is pasta. If you don’t fit into their mold, you don’t get much help. I just wanna get a job, hopefully get my CDL back, and get housing. I gained so much weight that I developed sleep apnea. But I don’t blame anyone for my situation except myself. I should have followed through, done what I knew was right about things. I’m not one to ask anyone on the street for money.”
“I grew up in a small town in East Texas, a little one-horse town not too far from Tyler. You blink, and you’re through it. I had a sister and two stepsisters. My dad drank vodka every day because it didn’t smell, but he was still the best I ever had in a family. My mother once threw a knife at me when she got angry, and she got angry a lot. She was the mean side of my family. My parents divorced when I was 4, and I was home-schooled. I never attended public school. I made it through a few grades at home, but then one day my mother dropped me and my sister off at my grandmother’s. She had a new husband. They decided I was too violent, so they put me on medication — Depakote and Seroquel. It messed me up pretty bad. They said I was mentally disabled, and my grandmother started getting disability benefits. It was my step-grandfather who was mean. He once threw my sister across the room and beat her so bad. I lived in Bedford for a while this past year. I’ve been in jail several times but for minor offenses. Being homeless is harder than most people think. We need an ID and a birth certificate to do many things. A homeless person may have to walk six miles just to get something we need, and then we might not get it. I’ve tried the homeless shelter, but the staff has favorites. They pass the good food to those they like and give the scraps to those they don’t. I want to get off the street. I power through each day. That’s what I call it, powering through.”
At any point in time, roughly 2,200 people are homeless in Fort Worth, said Toby Owen, CEO of PNS, and around 700 per night sleep at the shelter. About 70 percent of the city’s current homeless are men. The racial split between black and white is about even. The number of Hispanics, Asians, and others is minimal, he said. Nearly 50 percent of the shelter’s funding comes from grants, both local and federal, with the rest coming from private donations.
A recent study by U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that homelessness across the nation is growing in most urban areas. According to an annual report by the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, Fort Worth had a 12-percent increase from 2017 to 2018. One of the main reasons for this change is the lack of low-income housing along with few employment opportunities. To help curb the increase, a number of organizations recently undertook the goal to house 100 veterans in 100 days, from September 21 to December 21. That goal was surpassed after nine weeks, with 109 veterans housed.
Owen said his employees work tirelessly to help in any way possible. He is also aware that some accuse the staff of having favorites, especially when it comes to food.
“We know we can’t please everyone, and we can’t meet every single demand, but remember, we serve over 1,500 meals a day and provide a place to sleep for over 700 people each night. Yes, I listen to frequent grievances, but I never hear a complaint about the price.”
Owen is fully aware of the bedbugs.
“The bedbug situation is very difficult when we have rotating residents coming and going, but we do have a formal policy to treat the problem,” he said. “We contract with an extermination company, and we also do our best to address the issue as soon as it is found. Our goal is to give assistance to those who want to help themselves.”
As I was leaving, he reminded me what someone once said about being a caregiver: “I’ll walk miles with you, but I won’t pull you an inch.”