An elderly man with a scruffy white beard and long greasy hair picked through an ashtray outside the Cove House on a sunny January day.
After grinding the remnants of crinkled cigarette butts into a rolling paper, he gently wound his creation up and popped it into his mouth.
Such is the life of Charles Short.
Short, 65, said he has been a homeless drifter for 40 years and fits into the category of “chronic” homeless.
“I’m a disabled veteran. I’m a walking wacko,” he said in a gruff voice, laughing. There’s a smoothing sweet undertone to his voice, too, a hint at his upbringing in Portsmouth, Va.
Short is just one of hundreds of homeless people who find their way to Cove House each year.
Last year, 521 people stayed at least one night in the shelter, a collection of three houses on Halstead Avenue north of downtown.
Before arriving at the Cove House shelter, Short traveled all around the country: Florida, California, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. He has slept at homeless shelters, under bridges and “in the woods,” he said.
Because of his disabled veteran status — he served in the Navy from 1964 to 1968 — Short said he gets money every month, but his lifestyle keeps him on the streets.
“Even though I get a $1,000 check, I end up sleeping in the woods,” Short said.
As soon as he receives his check, Short starts eating at restaurants, sleeping in hotels and buying “expensive” cigarettes. In a matter of days or weeks, the money is gone.
“Next thing I know, I’m picking up cigarette butts, digging in trash cans,” he said, adding he doesn’t drink or do drugs.
Cove’s only shelter
While Short’s visit was in January, last year’s peak month for visitors at Cove House was October, when 54 people stayed at the shelter, which also runs a food donation program for low-income families.
While the Cove House was established in 1996, it became its own nonprofit corporation in 2010. Its service needs have since grown.
On Jan. 25, Benjamin Tindall, the shelter’s executive director, was barraged with questions as he walked around Cove House’s office and storage building.
One of his staff members, who just got off the phone, told him a veteran with vision problems in Waco needed a place to stay.
“Let her know we can make it work,” he said after checking his books on the number of beds available.
Currently, Cove House has a maximum occupancy of 21, but that will increase to 24 once a few more bunk beds are built.
The shelter is planning to acquire an apartment building that could double the number of homeless people it houses every year.
Tindall said Cove House has secured $50,000 from the Central Texas Housing Finance Corporation for an apartment building and is looking for property to buy.
Every night, the shelter’s trio of two-bedroom, one bathroom houses is two-thirds or completely full, Tindall said. The women stay in one shelter, the men in another, and the third house is reserved for families.
There are three college interns and four paid staff members, including Tindall, who work at the shelter. However, it’s the more than 30 volunteers “that really keeps us going,” he said.
Volunteer Allyssa Martin, 28, helped Cove House earlier this week reorganize its supply closets, filled with clothes and other items given to incoming residents.
Martin, who grew up in Copperas Cove, said Cove House plays an important role in the community.
“To the people who do need help, it’s a second chance,” she said.
Seventy-three families stayed in the shelter in 2012. Seventy-six individuals were sent there from Veterans Affairs, according to the Cove House 2012 Annual Report.
More than half of the people who stay in the shelter are from the Cove-Killeen-Temple area, Tindall said, adding no two situations are the same.
“Everyone has their own, unique twist,” he said. Many are facing unemployment; others are having problems at home.
From L.A. to Cove
Ted Bartlett, 46, came to Copperas Cove in December with his mother after she lost her home in Los Angeles.
They stayed with Bartlett’s brother, but when the landlord made them leave, they were forced to come to the shelter. Bartlett looked for a job in Cove, but he couldn’t secure one.
“It’s been a wash for me,” said Bartlett, who boarded a train back to California last Saturday. “I brought everything I owned here, and I’m going back with two suitcases.”
He called Coppers Cove a “dying town,” citing vacant houses and businesses dotting the city.
“It’s inevitable,” Bartlett said. “If I stay here, I’m going to end up staying behind a Dumpster.”
Bartlett and Short said other residents of the men’s house last week had different reasons they were staying at Cove House.
One had been shot several times; another had been kicked out of the house by his parents.
The faith-based shelter takes in a few people like Short — chronically homeless — every year, but Tindall said he doesn’t come across cases like Short’s very often.
Short said he has never come across a homeless shelter quite like Cove House.
“Most shelters are just one big room with a bunch of loud, stinkin’ fools in them,” he said. Cove House is “the best in the world.”
By Tuesday, Short had already moved on. No one seemed to know where he went.
“I’m usually a wanderer: Here today, gone tomorrow,” he said before he left.