Kyle Martin | Staff Writer
Lee Walker, 58, has been living on the streets since 2007.
“Money makes being homeless better,” Walker said. “I make 20 bucks a day, and I only need but 10. I don’t get greedy.”
Walker sleeps on trains some nights, works odd jobs every once in awhile to make some cash and has been homeless for eight years. Being on the streets for so long, he’s learned how rough it can be. When he has the money, he’ll stay at a motel or buy a couple packs of Ramen, but if not, he has to bum it around the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“You never know what’s going to happen every night,” Walker said. “Some days are good, some days are bad.”
Homelessness can affect anyone at any time. It has been a pressing issue in the Denton community for years, but whether or not it is being effectively approached and handled remains to be seen.
“Other communities are dealing with it,” executive director for Serve Denton Patrick Smith said. “Denton County as a whole is not doing a good job with addressing the issue.”
Smith and Serve Denton have become active leaders in the fight against homelessness. Serve Denton is a company whose mission is to support “nonprofits that open doors for people to become self-sufficient.” The company manages and oversees various properties around the city, leasing them to nonprofits to occupy and utilize.
“We worry about the property maintenance and all those things so those agencies don’t have to worry about that,” Smith said.
He said Denton has three basic categories of homelessness.
One category is chronic homelessness, which consists of people like Walker who perpetually remain on the streets, often because of drug abuse, mental health issues, an attempt to escape the law or any number of things.
Another category is homeless teens – Denton youths who are aging out of foster care with no place to turn. Once someone turns 18, foster homes are required by law to release custody of the young person. Smith says anywhere from four to 800 teens in Denton County age out of foster care and take to the streets.
“The challenge with those folks is that they cannot get into traditional transitional housing programs because they are not old enough,” Smith said. “There’s not a lot in place to help people in that age group.”
Around Denton, shelters are nearly non-existent. However, there are a few extreme weather shelters that open up their doors during days of intense heat or freezing cold, namely the Monsignor King Outreach Center, another Serve Denton affiliate.
At the local Salvation Army location on East McKinney Street, one can stay for a few nights per month, but help for homeless teens is limited.
The third and largest homeless demographic includes mothers escaping abusive situations with their children. In cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse, those able to escape are often left with nowhere to go.
The Wheeler House, a property managed by Serve Denton and run by local nonprofit Giving Hope, Inc. and Health Services of North Texas, is among one of the very few transition homes offering healthcare and housing opportunities for families on the streets.
“What we’re trying to do is go for the biggest demographic,” Smith said.
The Wheeler House supports four families at a time for a minimum of three months and a maximum of six, serving as a developmental residence that allows families time to get back on their feet. Within the establishment is small, apartment-like housing equipped with kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, children’s play areas and other amenities.
“We try to make it nice,” Smith said. “It’s not ostentatious, but it’s very tasteful. It’s comfortable, safe and secure.”
Through another’s eyes
Lynsey Pruett, a UNT alumna with a Bachelors of Arts in psychology, escaped the homeless life and is now hard at work, waitressing during the night shift at Dix Coney Island on the Square. Her family was living in Pennsylvania when they lost their home, and her husband moved her kids back down to Texas because it was the only affordable option.
Pruett remained homeless in Pennsylvania.
“I just couldn’t stay like that,” Pruett said. “People looked at you like you weren’t worth their time.”
Before she got a waitressing job in Pennsylvania, she collected scrap metal to trade in for cash so she could afford a place to stay for the night, rather than being out on the streets. Once she saved enough money, she moved back down to Texas with her family.
After roughing it in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Pruett said she sees a major difference in the way Denton handles its homeless population.
“Pennsylvania really did take better care of their homeless,” Pruett said. “If I had to do it again, it wouldn’t be down here, because this shit is cutthroat.”
In Pennsylvania, she said she was able to find food at least twice a day and a place to stay for the night in a church or shelter. She found places with donated clothes for people and encountered many more social services that catered towards helping the homeless.
In Denton, such services are hard to come by.
“I think the city should be more responsible for handling the homeless population,” Pruett said.
Through experience, Pruett understands how drastic and severe a life of homelessness can be. There is not always a rhyme or reason why someone gets stuck living outside. She said even though people make wrong decisions every once in awhile, “that doesn’t mean they should freeze to death.”
“I try to help when I can, because I’ve been in the same position, and it sucks,” says Pruett.
Featured Image: Lee Walker speaks about the experiences he has had while homeless. Walker has been homeless since 2007. Meagan Sullivan | Associate Visuals Editor