Waco children struggle with homelessness, food insecurity

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist

By Brooke Hill | Staff Writer

The first thought that comes to mind when thinking about homeless individuals in Waco is not a child.

However, the reality is that there are children in this community that do not have a place to call home or enough food to keep them healthy.

Waco Independent School District estimates about 1,200 of its students per year are homeless, as defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

In spring 2016, the Sanctuary House, a short term emergency housing program for homeless families in the Waco ISD opened in an attempt to help the problem.

The house is a collaborative effort between Waco ISD’s Homeless Outreach, the Waco Housing Authority, the local Salvation Army and Junior League of Waco.

The Waco Family Abuse Center typically houses around 250 homeless children a year. About 60 percent of those children are under the age of five, according to Kathy Reid, executive director for the Waco Family Abuse center.

Domestic violence is the single largest cause of homelessness for women and children Reid said.

The center provides shelter and food for the women and children who stay there. They even provide a homework lab for after school help, activities and field trips.

“Everything we try do to is either therapeutic or educational, so that kids, whether they’re here for three or four days or whether they’re here for six months, they find that their education is enhanced and that they’re healing, we hope, and building some resiliency from whatever the situation was that they came from before they came here,” Reid said.

Reid said the center’s numbers have remained steady for last four or five years, and that it is always at 80 to 100 percent capacity.

“I think Waco is like every other community,” Reid said. “We’ve got extremely high rates of domestic violence, and so we have lots and lots of families that come here and need a safe place to go.”

The Family Abuse Center also serves 21,000 to 23,000 meals a year to homeless women and children while they are working to get back on their feet.

“Food is a huge big main thing for us. Many of our families come from food instability and really aren’t sure where they’re going to get food or how they’re going to eat,” Reid said.

Homelessness isn’t the only problem some Waco children may be facing.

About 20 percent of residents in McLennan county are considered food insecure, according to Map the Meal Gap. Twenty-six percent of children in McLennan county are food insecure, meaning that one in four children in Waco has a lack of access to three healthy meals a day seven days a week.

Erin Nolen is the assistant director of research for Texas Hunger Initiative, and her job is solely to look at statistics regarding meal programs with children so that Texas Hunger Initiaive can understand how to improve their programs. Texas Hunger Initiative is a capacity-building, collaborative project dedicated to developing and implementing strategies to end hunger through policy, education, research, community organizing and community development.

“I think as Waco has continued to grow, there’s been more considered effort to consider that especially since we have a high low income population,” Nolen said. “There’s a lot more to be done, especially looking at the root causes of poverty too.”

Nolen said she’s hopeful that food insecurity will be less of a problem in Waco as the community continues to come together to form places such as the Jubilee Market and the Gospel Cafe.

“I think Waco’s a special place,” Nolen said. “I love Waco, and with Baylor there’s been a lot of concern and effort to really look at how we can be solving hunger issues here in Waco. There’s a lot of efforts but we still have food insecurity as an issue. We’ve seen a little bit of a decline, which is good, but still got a ways to go especially just in maximizing services we have currently and then also addressing more economic roots of it but it’s also just really complicated.”