For the homeless population in Tarrant County, there are many government programs that offer assistance and shelter; however, the community offers something more valuable than these programs: personal connections and support.
“It takes a village to raise a child could also be expressed as it takes a village to look out for and help our more vulnerable members,” said Lu Toner, a resident in the Westcliff neighborhood.
Toner is one of many within the neighborhood that reaches out to a familiar homeless man in the area commonly referred to as “Skateboard Jesus” or “Kenny.” He is a homeless man in his mid 40s with dreadlocks, a few teeth and piercing blue eyes who is often seen carrying his skateboard around the streets of Berry, University, South Hills and Bluebonnet Circle.
Cafe Bella co-owner and manager, Eli Golemi, has been familiar with this face for the past 16 years. She and her staff usually wave through the window to Kenny and occasionally put together a meal for him, she said. Often the chefs prepare some lasagna or fettuccine alfredo for him to take.
“He never asks for anything,” said Golemi. “He is such a sweet man and would never bother anyone.”
Golemi said that through the window by the front door she watches Kenny wait in the late evening. He stands there usually with an energy drink and skateboard in hand waiting on someone.
According to Golemi, when Kenny spots a small silver car drive up “he is all smiles.”
The driver is a woman named Dee McKesson who has fed him lunch six days a week and dinner two times a week for the past five years. She has known of Kenny for the past 23 years.
“The first time I saw Kenny was in a parking lot and there was something about him that just drew me to him. I recognized him,” said McKesson. “It was almost like seeing a familiar face.”
She explained that as a little girl she had an imaginary friend that looked exactly like Kenny. McKesson considers herself a religious woman and feels that God placed the image of Kenny as her imaginary friend so that she could help him one day.
“He is an acquaintance that I care about that my heart goes out to and I don’t even know him that well,” said McKesson. “He smiles really big and that’s all I need.”
Kenny is one of 408 people who are sleeping in places not intended for human habitation. Every year the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition of more than 400 volunteers and around 100 members of law enforcement canvassed Tarrant and Parker Counties, according to the website.
Some of the reasons why people become homeless can be due to shortages of affordable child care, domestic violence, addictions, abuse, disability, public transportation and background-friendly employers.
While the increase in the unsheltered homeless is not welcome, some partial explanations for the increase could be that the day in which the count happened was on an unseasonably warm weather night in January and also improved search and investigation efforts.
Not only are members of the community stepping up to help those in need, many local churches within the 76109 zipcode such as University Christian Church and St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church are opening its doors to the homeless.
A program called “Room at the Inn” serves around 15 people to a nights stay in the church which includes dinner and breakfast. This occurs during the hottest and coldest months of the year: July, August, December, January and February.
For the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch, this program allows the congregation to not only volunteer but also form connections and personal relationships with those that visit.
“I have had so many parishioners tell me that they have been enriched because of this program,” said Ritsch. “It increases empathy and helps people get over a lot of fears, prejudices, assumptions and gets [volunteers] to do what they deep in their heart want to do but for whatever reason it has not been easy for them to do.”
Ritsch said that this program bridges the gap between everyday working folk and the homeless. He says that he encourages the congregation to volunteer and often cites Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.”
Ritsch said that homeless community is close to him because his mother was mentally ill. Fortunately for his family, they were able to provide the proper care that she needed.
For those that are mentally ill, often times it is hard for those families to financially provide for them and usually the reason why they end up on the street. Because of this, Ritsch said that this is one of the most important ministries at the church.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In 2016, a total of 1,520 people are considered homeless in Fort Worth and of those 408 are unsheltered. The rest are in an emergency shelter, safe haven or transitional housing. This is a 3.7 percent increase in the total number of homeless from the previous year.
Lou Friese, who was homeless for three years, used to stay at “Room in the Inn” at St. Stephen’s. Now, he is on the board of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition and often visits the church to preach his testimony and encourage the congregation to volunteer for the program that helped him find a job.
“I was able to make contacts and network but also a lot of one on one time with people within the community,” said Friese. “You have a good chance to meet a lot of great people through the Room in the Inn program who touched my life in many aspects. They even say that I touched theirs.”
Friese stresses the importance of community interaction and said that without their support, he wouldn’t be serving in the programs that helped get him out of homelessness.
The community is really important because they offer close to double what the government funds, said James Petrovich, a social work professor at Texas Christian University. He also serves on the Catholic Charities Service outreach team which is a group of volunteers that weekly go through the streets looking for and connecting the homeless to different programs that are offered through the government.
Tarrant County receives approximately $13 million in government funding according to the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition website. According to Petrovich, a majority of the funding goes toward housing.
“The government programs are good with the big ticket items,” said Petrovich. “They don’t offer the support that a caseworker or someone in the community can offer.”
Through working with the charity, Petrovich said that the community offers close to double what the government funds. This can be in the form of furniture, clothing, food or money donations.
Places like Circle Cleaners on Bluebonnet Circle will offer or donate to Kenny any items that haven’t been picked up in a while. Jeff Williams, owner, said he is a well-known person within the community that everyone looks out for. Sometimes a pair of shoes or a coat can be the smallest items that mean the world to someone living on the streets.
“Anyone of us at any given time can be Jesus to someone,” McKesson said, “either by just giving someone a smile or a meal.”