On October 16, 2017, members of the Flour Bluff Citizens Council were joined by city, county, and state elected officials and city staff to hear a presentation on homelessness in Corpus Christi and Flour Bluff. Melanie Hambrick, a Flour Bluff resident who has served on the city’s Advisory Council for Homelessness, Mental Illness, and Substance Abuse, Kae Berry of Timon’s Ministries, and CCPD Chief Mark Schauer helped to educate the residents in the audience at the regular general meeting held at Grace Community Church on Flour Bluff Drive.
Hambrick began her part of the presentation with a definition of homeless. “Though many definitions exist, for our purposes we will define homeless as chronic, those who have been continuously homeless for one year; transitional, individuals who have experienced a single episode of homelessness lasting an average of one to two months; and episodic, an individual with three or more episodes within the last year rendering him homeless,” she said. Hambrick said that research indicates the primary reasons for homelessness to be addiction, poverty, lack of housing, lack of affordable health care, domestic violence, and mental health issues among others. “The number of homeless changes daily, and finding these individuals to talk to them about their personal experiences is challenging and therefore cannot be accurate,” stated Hambrick.
“There are lots of factors that contribute to chronic homelessness. When people are released from public institutio or public systems without adequate discharge planning, they are more likely to become homeless,” said Hambrick. “Adequate discharge planning is a crucial element to the long-term success of these individuals. Reasons given include release from correctional institutions, release from hospitals, release from mental institutions, children aging out of foster care, and migration for jobs.” Hambrick added that Corpus Christi becomes a destination for the homeless because of the mild winters and places that lend themselves to living outside, such as bridges, brushy areas, and beaches.
“All of this does come with a cost to the taxpayer,” said Hambrick. Though she did not have exact data for Corpus Christi, Hambrick gave the national average, which is estimated between $30 and $40 thousand per individual annually. “This cost is absorbed by many. For example, the cost for processing and holding of individuals in correctional institutions, hospitals that do not refuse those who seek medical attention, and court-appointed attorneys who represent those who have been arrested, to name a few.” This does not include the cost to clean up homeless camps in public spaces and parks, which would be absorbed by the Solid Waste Department or the Parks and Recreation Department.
Hambrick provided data on what services are available for the homeless in Corpus Christi:
- 10 agencies provide shelter totaling approximately 600 beds (none in Flour Bluff identified and many serve specific populations)
- 14 identified churches and organizations provide food (none in Flour Bluff identified)
- 7 agencies, including Timon’s Ministries in Flour Bluff, provide health care and case management services
Kae Berry of Timon’s Ministries told the group that Timon’s was incorporated in 1999 and opened for business in 2000. “I started there as a volunteer serving food,” she said. “A year later I became the director, and I’m still there.” Berry explained that it really began back in the eighties at St. Peter’s by the Sea UMC on Waldron Road as a shelter for the homeless. “They were feeding the homeless who camped near there out the back door of the church. It grew and grew and grew. Then, other churches got involved, and they formed Timon’s. When it first opened, we were really feeding only homeless people,” Berry said. “Because of the development of the Flour Bluff area, the number of homeless in Flour Bluff has diminished significantly. Currently, only about 5% of the people we feed are homeless, usually the chronic homeless.”
“Our goal at Timon’s is to help people not be homeless,” said Berry. “Most of the folks we see are people who are just hanging on by a thread.” Berry told of how they serve many children whose parents have been incarcerated and who are being raised by indigent grandparents who live on fixed incomes and could barely afford to feed and care for themselves, much less the grandchildren. “Those in need are welcome at Timon’s. If they don’t behave themselves,” Berry said, “they can’t be there. There may be more homeless wandering around out here, but we don’t see them because they’ve been banned.”
Berry said that Timon’s is really working to help the working poor and the disabled poor. “I don’t feel the government does enough for these people, and that’s who we’re after. We have a doctor on board who has 1700 charts; most of those people are not homeless. A few are homeless, and with them most of what we do is wound care, spider bites, and that sort of thing,” said Berry. “We’re helping the uninsured, and it keeps them out of the ER. This started in 2012. We opened the first dental clinic in 2009, the first in the Coastal Bend. We have 3400 charts for people who come in for dental care from all over the place, not just Flour Bluff.”
“We also help with things like driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and the kinds of things that get people back on the road so they can get a job. You can’t do anything without an ID; without a birth certificate, you’re dead in the water. All of this costs money,” said Berry. “We move about three tons of groceries out every month. That is increased since Hurricane Harvey since we’re helping a lot of folks with emergency food. We’re also helping with their medicines. This is not the time to be standing in water with your house down around your knees to be without your blood pressure pills. We’re glad to help folks with these things. However, if we’re going to spend a farthing on you, you must pass the drug test. We will feed you and give you groceries because there are children involved, but for anything else you have to pass what we lovingly call the ‘Whiz Quiz’.”
According to Berry, running Timon’s costs about $323,000 a year to operate, most of which comes through grant funding. Hurricane Harvey did damage to the Timon’s building, leaving them with a 30-year loan for its repair. When clients do not behave, Berry said they call the police and issue a criminal trespass. Timon’s Ministries is located at 10501 South Padre Island Drive next to Pizza Hut and is open from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. daily. Berry can be contacted by phone at 361-937-6196 or by e-mail, email@example.com.
Representatives from law enforcement agencies were present at the meeting, including Constable Mitchell Clark and Chief Mike Markle who brought several officers to answer questions. “We often receive phone calls and emails from the public asking what we’re going to do about the homeless. Unless a crime is committed, we can’t do much. Homelessness is not a crime. I understand the frustration of property owners. I’m a property owner of Flour Bluff,” said Markle.
“When crimes are committed by the homeless, we deal with those. However, homeless folks, more often than not, are victims of crimes rather than instigators of crimes,” said Markle. “We do have many homeless because they see Corpus Christi and its mild climate as a destination city. They see this and the very giving and charitable nature of the city as reasons to come here, so they get on a bus or get a ride and head down here. I doubt that Corpus Christi will ever be without homeless. It is more of an issue of co-existing and everyone maintaining qualities of life while being charitable, while being cognizant of the law, while enforcing the laws so that others aren’t impacted negatively by their presence,” continued Markle. He encouraged the residents to get in touch with Captain Lee Weber who is the district captain in charge of the Flour Bluff area. He can be contacted by phone (361) 826-4052 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We are very much involved in homeless issues outside of just police work,” said Markle as he introduced Assistant Chief Mark Schauer, a 35-year veteran of the police department, who offered additional information about the homeless situation in Corpus Christi and Flour Bluff. “Chief Schauer has been involved in many homeless initiatives, serving on various boards and working with the Coalition for the Homeless , Metro Ministries, and Charlie’s Place. He’s also been involved in the Point-in-Time Surveys – as were many of our staff in the police department.”
“When I got this job, I had been homeless for about five months, but it’s a different kind of homelessness. You can’t paint everybody with the same brush of homelessness. Some are homeless because of domestic violence, some for drugs and emotional conditions. You have young people being kicked out of their homes. The average age of the homeless, as I learned from serving over four years on the Metro Ministries board, is sometimes nine years old. A mother with kids drives down the average age, and there are lots of mothers with kids who have no place to go,” said Shauer.
“In my case, I graduated from college, worked for my dad for a year, and decided I didn’t want to live in Illinois any more. So, I got in my truck and left. I camped out of my truck on the beach, under overpasses, even the JFK Causeway, and places where I was kicked out because I didn’t know I couldn’t camp there. A week before the academy started I rented a room in a mobile home on the other side of town. That was my first place. I had money in the bank and a desire to get a job, not really the same as for many homeless.”
Schauer shared with the audience information about homelessness in Corpus Christi and Flour Bluff that he and other officers received from a two-year survey with over 400 homeless people. “We learned that a lot of the people interviewed were homeless less than a year. Many were not from here but didn’t say why they came here. A lot of them admitted to having drug and psychological problems. Some who said they didn’t have psychological problems admitted to being treated for psychological problems,” said Schauer.
“If you ask the intake officer at the city detention center, he’ll tell you that he hardly ever sees a PI (public intoxication) for alcohol any more. It’s all synthetics. It’s easy to get and extremely cheap. They can share it. They can take a blunt and make it last for days because they can get high with just a couple of hits. And, it’s deadly. If you see people leaning against a building – looking like a zombie or something – almost for sure they’re on synthetics,” said Schauer. “We think it’s a waste of time to give money to these folks, so we put up the ‘Keep the Change’ signs. We prefer that you give to the shelters, give to Timon’s, give to somebody, but don’t flat out give them cash. I think it’s the worst thing you can do.” Later in the presentation, Schauer told the audience how they could tell if synthetic use is going on in their area. “Look for the cigarillo packages like Swisher Sweets.”
“We also found out through the survey is that 7% – or about 28 people – said they are just satisfied being homeless. These are the ones you see all the time,” Schauer said as he described one particular barefooted man whom he sees sometimes 20 times in a day around City Hall. “He is the face of homelessness for me, but it’s not the representative face because there isn’t one. Some are mothers. Some are people who came here for jobs that they didn’t get. This is a complex issue. All we can do is enforce the law and try to keep it at bay.”
Shauer said that he worked on the aggressive panhandling ordinance that prevents people from repeatedly asking for money. “Talking to you is a First Amendment right, but they can’t continually ask you or approach you aggressively. We can stop it when they’re in the roadway, and we do that a lot. When we make an arrest for that, it’s an endless cycle. They don’t have the money to pay, and we don’t have debtors prison. You can’t hold them. We arrest them. They magistrate them and then release them. We pick them up and try to interrupt their cycle.”
Some of the homeless activity, Shauer said, takes place on private property, and the police cannot legally get back in there without the permission of the property owner. “Flour Bluff is unique in that it has large, brushy areas privately owned by oil companies and such, but without their express permission or a direct request, we can’t just go onto the property. Some of these camps are elaborate and look like Apocalypse Now. If you see them and tell us, then we can address it through the property owner,” he said.
Shauer explained that many of the people are mentally disabled or emotionally unsound, but there is not a lot of money for them. “We wish there was. We commit a lot of people who are out a few days later. There is no long-term treatment facility unless they are sent to SASH (San Antonio State Hospital),” said Shauer. “I sit on the board for Charlie’s Place, and they have what they call scholarships for the people we encounter on the streets. We have a special unit that works around City Hall and out in the Bluff around Parker Park and along Graham Road. Our bike officers offer them some of these spots at Charlie’s Place, but they don’t always take them up on it, so they end up getting arrested.”
When asked by a Citizens Council member why these people are not made to work even though they appear to be able to do so. Shauer responded by saying that some are truly disabled mentally or physically; some will but look for ways to sue the property owner; others do work at Metro Ministries and earn their keep; still others simply do not want to work. At the Rainbow House, the women are working or going through a job program, and all the kids are in school or in childcare Shauer explained.
Another member asked what can be done about them urinating or defecating in the park. “We have ordinances that address that, and they can be ticketed. We have to see it. Call us out, and we’ll come out and talk to them. Most of the time they comply with our requests.”
Shauer was asked if anyone had used drones to fly over some of the larger brush-covered areas to locate homeless camps. “No. We have to respect private rights, too. Just about everything out here (Flour Bluff) is privately owned, and we would need the permission of the property owner to do something like that,” Shauer said.
Melanie Hambrick talked about possible solutions. “Many components are necessary for a successful plan to end homelessness,” she said. “However a plan is just a plan if no action is taken. It is clearly a waste of time and effort. This is a community issue, and government can only be part of the solution.” Hambrick outlined some actions that could be taken immediately, such as locating a coordinated entry center for those in need where they will be met with a process that will maximize potential assistance in changing the homeless person’s current situation. She added that service organizations that work in tandem with the Texas Homeless Network will provide solutions and pathways for individuals to become self-sufficient. “This will also aid in our ability to collect true data on homelessness in our area,” Hambrick added.
Hambrick stated that all who are serving the homeless in some way should take a “collective impact approach” to combat homelessness. “This means that previously independent and uncoordinated programs in Flour Bluff that address the needs of the homeless should be coordinated to work toward common goals. Leadership and civic engagement should be collaborative at all levels across all sectors,” she said. The FBCC meeting ended with an appeal to the churches, businesses, and residents to take an active role in helping solve what is a daunting task for any community.
At the October 17, 2017 City Council meeting, Amy Granberry, Chairperson for the Advisory Council for Homelessness, Mental Illness, and Substance Abuse briefed the council on four recommendations, echoing what Hambrick presented at the Flour Bluff Citizens Council meeting the night before. Almost all council members were in favor of moving forward with two or three of the recommendations, but District 4 Councilman Greg Smith lead the charge by strongly suggesting that all four recommendations be acted upon swiftly. The four recommendations are as follows:
- Coordinated entry to ensure that all people experiencing a housing crisis have fair and equal access and are quickly identified, assessed for, referred, and connected to housing and assistance based on their strengths and needs.
- Parks and Recreation Homeless Workers Program, which is based on the City of Albuquerque’s “There’s a Better Way” Program. Workers will pick up trash and beautify the city and will work in conjunction with the Community Service Workers Program in the Parks and Recreation Department.
- Tent City / Tiny Homes in which city could partner with businesses to build a tiny home community by providing city-owned land and CDBG funding to build bathrooms and showers where residents would be charged a reasonable rent fee.
- Family Reunification Program, which is a one-time use program designed to reunite homeless with supportive family outside of Corpus Christi.
NOTE: For information on how you can help, contact Lt. Chris Hooper, Melanie Hambrick, or Shirley Thornton
Retired from education after serving 30 years (twenty-eight as an English teacher and two years as a new-teacher mentor), Shirley enjoys her life with family and friends while serving her community, church, and school in Corpus Christi, Texas. She is the creator and managing editor of The Paper Trail, an online news/blog site that serves to offer new, in-depth, and insightful responses to the events of the day. She also writes and edits for The Texas Shoreline News, a Corpus Christi print newspaper.