Homeless Shelter faces financial crunch

By David Taylor
Managing Editor

North Channel Chamber members heard this story about the Bay Area Homeless, at their luncheon last week.

A police chaplain and pastor riding shotgun with officers in ride-alongs noticed something bothersome to him. Rev. Mack Cook noticed a lot of homeless folks wandering around the streets of his hometown Baytown and he wanted to do something about it.

He began picking up some of them and bringing them home with him. Every weekend, he’d have five, six or seven people in his house who he and his wife Bettye fed and welcomed with open arms. After six months, however, they both knew this wasn’t a good idea and began to look for a place where they could provide more help on a permanent basis.

“They moved into a house on Wisconsin Street in old Baytown and named their homeless encampment Sheltering Arms,” said Bill Eckert, III, executive director of the charity to attendees at the North Channel Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

It was later renamed to Bay Area Homeless Shelter Services and since 1983 has been a viable resource to the citizens of the area, including North Channel.

Eckert was surprised to learn that few in the room were aware of their services and realized his presence at the luncheon was a good idea. Eckert, III has served as executive director at Bay Area Homeless Services since July 2011. As an attorney, he is passionate about assisting low-income homeless individuals and families by blending best practices from the fields of business management and social services. He also has a background in human resources and served as director of Legal Clinics for Houston Volunteer Legal Program before coming to BAHS.

Cook passed away in 2009, but the work he began continues to thrive and grow in his absence. It is the only full-service shelter that provides services to the homeless in east Harris, Liberty, and Chambers counties but not in the same sense one might normally think of a shelter.

“When you say homeless shelter, you might think of something a little more along the line of Star of Hope in Houston where you show up at 5 p.m., receive a bed if it’s available for the night, take a shower, be fed a hot meal, and by 7 a.m. the next day, you’re out on the street on your own again,” Eckert said. “That’s not how Bay Area works.”

He described the vision of Cook as a place with more comprehensive services to give the homeless a lift back onto their feet and return them as a functioning member of society and contributing members.

In terms of financial impact, Eckert said last year the residents they helped return to the community impacted the local economy with more than $787,000 in annualized income. The number was reached with 30 former residents through 26 different employers throughout the area.

“That includes rental properties, goods and services, transportation, and much more,” he said, “which makes us a vital resource to the area.”

The ministry expanded from the one building on Wisconsin Street now to three buildings. The administration building which houses the offices is about 100 years old. The men’s shelter next door is also 100 years old, and the women’s shelter is behind the administration building and is a younger building.

The Britton-Fuller Family Center Program was opened in 2016 and can house six intact families of five members at any given time. The facility helps the shelter abide by federal requirements and allow families to remain together.

Eckert said they face many obstacles but find ways of resolving them.

“That includes lost or missing ID’s, lack of residence documentation, misdemeanor warrants and fines, lack of work credentials, no money for healthcare referrals and treatment, childcare issues, and workforce certifications,” he said.

The shelter itself faces some challenges including a downturn nationwide in national and local philanthropic downturn, and traditional local supporters.

“We also have increased costs for food, supplies, wages and benefits while trying to manage a 24/7/365 program, and maintenance costs on our existing buildings,” he said.

Jim Wadzinski, a board member, said one of their residents, a young lady from the East Coast had gone through a divorce and was wanting to move to get away from her circumstances. She came to Houston with her daughter and was hired as a teacher in Channelview ISD. She had paid a deposit on a rental house, but the house wasn’t available, and she couldn’t get her money back.

“She’s stuck here with no money in the bank, and no check from her job for another two to four weeks. She’s looking at no income for the next six weeks. After a few paychecks, she had earned enough to rent an apartment. We were able to provide a safe place for her and the child during that time.

Depending on their length of stay, Wadzinski said they can assist them with job searches, writing resumes, teach them financial literacy and help with other life skills.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as trying to help them get an ID, or get them access to a phone, or computer,” he said.

A capital campaign is underway led by former Baytown mayor Steve Don Carlos and he’s asking everyone in the community to pitch in and help.

They are planning a fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency on February 24. To learn more about how to help the shelter, visit their website at https://www.bahs-shelter.org/