In the U.S., half of all the homeless persons who sleep outside do so in California, and it seems that at least half the coverage of homelessness in national publications concerns California. My recent Fix Homelessness series was California-centric, but I did not want to be one of the journalists who ignores the middle of the country, so in August I took a driving trip to nine homelessness-connected sites in Texas, Kansas, and Colorado.
My goal was not to find spectacular programs but to see how concerned people deal with homelessness in ordinary places. First stop: Wichita Falls, Texas, where the area surrounding Faith Mission looks unpromising at first sight. It’s a block away from the home of the local newspaper, the Times Record News, which has laid off most of its staff and is now printed in Lubbock, 200 miles away.
The newspaper’s slogan, “Your Choice. Your Source,” remains on eleven battered newspaper boxes stored in the loading dock where two conveyer belts sent newspapers directly from the printing press into trucks heading out for speedy delivery. An empty Coca-Cola cup and an empty pack of Marlboros are all that’s left of newspaper days.
“Your choice” is a good summary of why half of the 48 men who live at Faith Mission (and two-fifths of the 40 women who live in a parallel program, Faith Refuge) are in Wichita Falls. Judges, particularly District Judge Dennis Morris in Ardmore, Oklahoma, 85 miles away, give men and women who admit their guilt a choice: years of jail time or enrollment in Faith’s 13-month New Beginnings program.
At the government-run homeless shelters I’ve seen, men and women typically go round and round like wind turbines, not making any progress. Eventually, most stop trying. But at Faith Mission, residents start in level one — brown t-shirts — where they have zero freedom and no access to cellphones or other electronics. They sleep in a bedroom for four or six. They then move up to level two — blue t-shirts — where they have better bedrooms and some freedom.
Residents know this is a last-ditch option to long incarceration. They are subject to regular, random room and locker searches, as well as urinalyses and breathalyzer testing. They know that if they test positive for drug or alcohol use, or are in possession of contraband, they will be remanded immediately to the criminal justice system.
The goal is to change the residents’ decision-making process through daily Bible study along with classes on budgeting and finance, anger management, and parenting. They are required to go to Sunday church services and substance recovery programs on Wednesday evenings. Everyone can use the basketball court and weight-lifting equipment. They can smoke cigarettes outside.
Whatever their level, everyone has to work. Those who are agile can clean gutters and clear leaves and brush as part of Faith Lawn & Tree Services. Others, including older residents and “pirates” — people missing an arm or a leg — can work in the kitchen or laundry.
Their goal is to get to level three — green t-shirts, or orange ones for greater visibility if they’re working in tree services — where they have more privacy and receive a paycheck every two weeks that’s placed in an escrow account for their use upon graduation. When they complete the program every student has housing, a job, and enough money in the bank to purchase a decent used car. Men can pay $200 per month and live in a transitional house as they are reestablishing themselves in the work force.
Faith Mission takes all comers, as room allows, with the exception of registered sex offenders, those charged with violent crimes, and those physically unable to work. Executive director Steve Sparks says over the years the populace has changed. The mission is a block away from railroad tracks, and when it started in 1958 many of the residents were men who rode the boxcars and drank heavily or smoked marijuana. Now, many walk from the bus station a few blocks away and are addicted to methanol laced with fentanyl.
With this new population, does Faith Mission work? Since July 2021, 58 percent of men entering Faith Mission graduate, as do 63 percent of the women in Faith Refuge. Program director and pastor Bob Johnston points to not only beating addictions and learning good work habits, but another life change as well: He officiated over the weddings of seventeen program members during the year concluding in August.