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Archive for October, 2009

Beacon Center

After walking through the doors of the John S. Dunn Outreach Center, one may not immediately determine the facility’s purpose. It is packed with tables whose occupants share stories and laughter over a warm cooked meal and hot tea. Some keep to themselves by sleeping or enjoying a page turner, while others chat exuberantly and catch up with old friends.

Most wouldn’t deduce from the comfortable ambience and sense of safety that the location, also known as The Beacon, is an outreach center for Houston’s homeless. Located in the heart of downtown Houston on Prairie Street, The Beacon was established as a nonprofit corporation by Christ Church Cathedral to address the hunger, hygiene and the well being of the homeless community since Jan. 2007.

“We’re what’s called a day center. We provide basic services,” Program Director of the Beacon Mike Puccio said. “We do one meal a day, a lunch meal, clothing and hygiene distribution. We also do case management and referrals, which is a big part of what we do to help steer the clients to the right help they need.”

The city of Houston is notorious for its high rate of homeless individuals. Most Houstonians cannot travel around the city without noticing a displaced person during their commute. The Web site for the Cathedral Health and Outreach Ministries (CHOM) states that “the national average for an individual to remain homeless is eight months; the current Houston average is a little over 3 years.”

Common causes for homelessness include substance abuse, mental illness and family crisis. According to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, it is estimated that a little over 10,000 homeless individuals populate Houston each night; 3,000 are considered to be “chronically homeless.”

These staggering statistics are why shelters like The Beacon are necessary for Houston to tend to the needs of thousands of lost individuals. The center is funded by donations and managed mostly by volunteers. They help the disadvantaged so they not only can sustain life with a meal and a hot shower, but also have their clothes washed, folded and returned with the dignity all human beings deserve.

“I’m from Detroit and I have been to a lot of shelters and I have never been treated with such respect,” Raymond Doyle, a member of the homeless community, said. “For them to fold my clothes is unbelievable. It’s not just southern hospitality; these are blessed people.”

Doyle isn’t the only one that takes advantage of The Beacon’s hospitality. Puccio estimates that the center services 650 to 700 people a day who all come to experience a refreshing regimen.

The homeless begin the process when volunteers register their names in a computer system so the center can keep track of how many people it services each day and who to return clothes to if a patron wishes for their garments to be laundered. Once registered, each person can choose to take a private shower and use administered scrubs while their clothes are washed. The “doctor look” is a common joke among Beacon regulars.

“I’m wearing some ugly pink scrubs right now,” Shawn Bouldin, who has been homeless for seven months, said. “A lot of the time there are people walking around downtown in scrubs and people think we are doctors but … it’s really people from The Beacon.”

After changing into their medical attire, each individual goes through the 11:30 a.m. lunch line, which has a variety of selections, and chooses their one serving of food and an unlimited beverage. They then settle down to a table to savor their meal and pass the time.

“(The wait) depends on the capacity of people that came in that day,” Bouldin said. “It shouldn’t take no longer than an hour and half, two hours to get in the shower and get your clothes washed.”

Despite the valuable resources many homeless facilities provide, one of the barriers of success is convincing people to put pride aside so they can be assisted. Although many take advantage of all of The Beacon’s amenities, there are some homeless people that find it difficult to accept the full extension of the center’s helping hand.

“Any time you see me in The Beacon, I’m only there for tea and coffee. I’d rather eat out of a garbage can than eat at a homeless shelter,” Marcus Carter said. “Some people don’t do homeless shelters because they know other persons there are dependent upon them. I do not want to become dependent.”

It may seem like Carter is determined to reverse the downward spiral of a dangerous life on the streets, but at 41 years old he is a common representative of the homeless community. Carter has received care from the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (TDMHMR), is a recovering drug addict, and has been chronically homeless since the age of 17.

Carter is among many of the homeless who Bouldin defines as “people who can’t be helped unless they want to help themselves.”

Volunteers of The Beacon are always ready and willing to help those seeking assistance.

While patrons wait patiently to be serviced, workers hustle as they fold laundry, wash dishes and try to make the center run as smoothly as possible. It’s a fast paced 7-hour day, but it is impossible for volunteers to not feel the significance of their work.

Though The Beacon was established to help the disadvantaged, volunteers like 32-year-old Karen Turney believe they have had as much emotional fulfillment as the people they aid.

“I think it has helped get me out of my bubble and see how other people live,” said Turney, “but it also makes me appreciate my health, my mental health. I try not to take things for granted.”

According to CHOM, its volunteers have donated over $1 million worth of services, which does not include benefits from community partners such as Houston Food Bank, Community of the Streets Outreach, and the Houston Police Department. Over 1,700 people volunteered in 2008, but The Beacon always welcomes those who are willing to make a positive impact on Houston’s homeless and on their own life.

“I think we affect the volunteers just as much as we affect the clients,” Puccio said. “A lot of times they come up to me, they find me before they leave, and they want to shake my hand and thank me for the experience.”

The Beacon is open four days a week, Friday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information about Houston’s homeless and how to get involved, visit http://www.CHOMhouston.org and http://www.homelesshouston.org.

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