Nearing the three-year anniversary of its founding, Love for Lancaster is stepping up its efforts to reach out to the homeless population of Fort Worth.
According to its Facebook page, Love for Lancaster is “a group of TCU students united under one purpose to be relational and intentional with those who live on the streets of Lancaster.”
Love for Lancaster founder and senior marketing major Jim Reed said the program grew out of an interest he and a few friends had in the problem of homelessness in Fort Worth.
“One day literally we just went down and started asking people, ‘What can TCU students do to serve you?’” Reed said. “Most people said ‘We just need a friend, we just need someone to talk to, we just need someone to be there and actually care about us.’”
Reed said after that, he and a few other students began returning to Lancaster Avenue a few times a week, hoping to build friendships with the homeless of the area.
Junior strategic communication major Matthew Warwick, president of Love for Lancaster, said the group has grown since then from just five people to around 25 to 30 active members.
As the organization enters its fourth year in operation, it continues to grow by partnering with other ministries that share similar goals.
One ally is the Freedom in Worship Church, which describes itself as “a church without walls that provides spiritual refuge to individuals seeking restoration within the Christian Church and community at large.”
Lano Patino, the church’s founder and senior pastor, said Freedom in Worship’s goal is to help the homeless through support and faith.
“The mission is to actually bring Jesus to the streets,” Patino said. “Not just do outreach, but to actually change people’s lives to the point of getting out of the shelters and into the church.”
Merwyn Mexicano, an usher for the church, said he has had a personal experience of change since getting involved over the past year.
“I was always about the streets. Banging, drug dealing, drug using, thieving and carjacking. I was all about that,” Mexicano said. “But now I know God. God’s the one I turn to now.”
Freedom in Worship Church holds their services at Unity Park, a space off of Lancaster Avenue where the homeless can come to relax and receive food at different times during the week.
Unity Park is operated by Feed by Grace, a group that “develops and implements cost-effective, Christian-based programs that meet the needs of a diverse population working to break the cycle of homelessness.”
Neale Mansfield, founder and executive director of Feed by Grace, said his organization’s goal is different than that of many others around Fort Worth.
“We are not about giveaways, we’re not about food,” he said. “We are about relationship.”
Mansfield said when churches with good intentions come out to give away free things, it tends to put them above the homeless. He said when people come out just to talk, it is a different kind of giving.
“What it does is it creates a sense of normalcy,” he said. “In Unity Park, when you bring people together that are homeless and not homeless, that levels the playing field.”
Mansfield said he knows full well the struggles of the homeless, having been a drug addict for more than 25 years before he turned his life around.
“In the year 2000 God delivered me from addiction. And I suddenly had a strong desire to share what I had just gotten with all these folks that I used to get high with,” Mansfield said. “I got to know a lot of really good people that were just bound up in addiction.”
On Friday mornings, Love for Lancaster partners with an organization calledThe NET to participate in “Bingo & Bagels,” an early morning meet-and-greet where volunteers eat and play bingo with the homeless.
Over the years, many of the homeless of Lancaster Avenue have built relationships with students.
Cory Mack, a regular at “Bingo & Bagels,” said students involved with The NET and Love for Lancaster have given the homeless a support group in times of need.
“If it wasn’t for them I don’t know what I’d do,” Mack said. “They’ve helped me a lot with coping with stuff. They’re there for you.”
Don Freestone, one of the homeless on Lancaster Avenue who was brought to “Bingo & Bagels” by Mack, said it means a lot to have students coming out to discover what life on the streets is truly like.
“Most people that are out there don’t really know what the homeless life is really about,” he said. “They just think we’re just out here for panhandling, bumming and always just a free hand out, and it’s not that.”
“There’s some out here that are, but there’s more that are trying to get their life straightened out,” Freestone said.
Kathy Lakes, who escaped homelessness but continues to return to play bingo, said she sees the volunteers as family.
“I look at the TCU kids as my kids,” she said. “I’m old enough to be their mother, so that’s how I treat them. Just like my kids.”
“Love every one them, and they’re all brats,” Lakes said, with a smile on her face. “But I love them anyway.”