By Lisa Sewell
My VISTA assignment was to help the Texarkana Homeless Coalition implement a coordinated entry (CE) system mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Coordinated entry is a process that prioritizes the most vulnerable homeless people for housing. My first step was to do a needs assessment by speaking to an executive director of a nonprofit and two case managers at two different nonprofits to get their perspectives on the issues in the community generally and the challenges of people experiencing homelessness. I focused on finding solutions to the issues people experiencing homelessness struggled with in the community. The homeless community here face the same issues plaguing the homeless throughout the nation — lack of affordable housing, substance abuse, domestic violence, illiteracy, physical disabilities, and mental illness. A case manager and I attended a permanent supportive housing (PSH) workshop in Longview, Texas. We both took different things from the presentations and I combined what we learned into a plan to bring PSH to Texarkana. The proposal was presented to the president of the Coalition. Another aspect of my assignment was to support the Coalition in redesigning its website and creating marketing materials. I really enjoyed the opportunity to showcase my marketing skills with the rebranding of the Coalition’s logo, website, Doorways Home (the CE destination), and creating marketing material for its events.
Throughout my year, I was presented with and overcame a number of barriers blocking the effective implementation of Coordinated Entry (CE) and other parts of my project. A major challenge was keeping up with the constantly changing roster of agencies within CE. Distinguishing between different sources of funding and tracking how that affected an agency’s role was also very challenging. When I requested data on the resources the city and county devote to homelessness, I found that the statistics are not available or maybe not tracked by the city.
I took this position despite my reservations about the stipend and paltry “benefits” because I am concerned about the poor, marginalized, and the underclass in our society. I have lived in Texarkana my entire life, I do not have much exposure to things outside of Texarkana and I am not exposed to many things that are happening in my hometown, but this experience has revealed to me how poor and under-resourced the community is in terms of economic activity and supportive services for those most in need. A case manager really opened my eyes to the race, class, and economic divide that I had never noticed before. I am more aware of the hidden poverty in our rural/suburban community and how the working poor are being left behind. I learned how on the federal level there has been a failure to address homelessness with programs that have been proven to work. Nationwide there are long waitlists for Section 8 housing (the waitlist in Texarkana will close) when it is a fact that it costs more to keep someone in an emergency shelter than in Section 8 housing. The federal government has for decades cut supportive services and underfunded affordable housing which are two of the solutions to ending mass homelessness in America. As a result of my project, my hope is for the Coalition to become a stronger advocate for people experiencing homeless by starting a campaign to dispel the stereotypes and misperceptions the community has towards people who are experiencing homelessness and starting a long-term steering committee to bring PSH to Texarkana. There are new members of the Coalition and I believe they have what it takes to move things forward for the homeless community.