As many Killeen-area residents gather in their homes this week to celebrate the holiday season with friends and loved ones, others are looking for secure places to sleep and wondering where their next meal will come from.
Hunger and homelessness are increasing epidemics plaguing the United States, striking Americans of every age, ethnicity and religion, and hitting urban and rural communities alike.
On any given night, more than 600,000 people in America are homeless, according to endhomelessness.org.
In the greater Killeen area, the estimated homeless population is 513, according to a 2013 survey that counted the number of people identified in a 24-hour period. The Killeen Independent School District reported there are 1,013 homeless students enrolled in Killeen ISD schools this year.
The reasons people become homeless vary widely. For many, their own poor choices place them there. For others, extenuating circumstances send their lives into a downward spiral from which they are unable to recover.
These are the stories of some people in Central Texas who found themselves in various stages of homelessness this holiday season.
On the edge
Cassaundra Collier, 28, and her son, Dyvante, 6, were out of options.
In October, Collier was living in a Killeen motel when her husband was sent to prison. No longer able to afford the motel on her own, Collier was forced to leave and seek shelter elsewhere. She had no idea where she and Dyvante would sleep at night.
“We had already used up all the help we could from the schools and churches, and with no family able to help us, I didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” Collier said earlier this month. “I was trying to be strong for my son, because he has no idea what’s happening; but not knowing what tomorrow has in store, it’s hard to keep it together.”
Not wanting to see a young boy living on the streets, Adam Webster, 27, a friend of Collier’s husband, offered to share his small one-bedroom Killeen apartment with the mother and son.
Collier moved in with Webster and his Doberman pinscher Rocky in November, sleeping on a couch in the living room while Dyvante slept on a makeshift cot a few feet away.
“I had an apartment and a car, but I lost all that after my hours got cut from 40 to 10 at Whataburger,” Collier said. “I was just making enough to get by and provide for my son, but now all I have left are the clothes on our backs and my son.”
Webster, however, had his own problems. No longer able to work full time due to his varicose veins, he did odd jobs to pay the electric bill and depended on the local food pantry to survive. But he fell three months behind on his rent and received an eviction notice on Thanksgiving Day. In early December, Webster and his roommates all faced being homeless.
“I’m not a drunk or addict. I’ve just fallen on hard times, and I can’t find work that I am able to do with my disability,” Webster said. “I’ve been looking for a job, but I can’t sit or stand for long periods of time.”
With his family in not much better financial shape, and living 1,200 miles away in North Carolina, Webster said he can’t depend on them for help. He has, however, started the lengthy process of filing for Social Security disability.
Homeless statistics in the greater Killeen area changed dramatically in the past few years. Not only have the numbers increased, but the composition of the homeless community changed from one of predominantly single, adult males with a substance abuse and/or mental health issue, to one in which more than 27 percent of the total is made up of families, according to a greendoors.com report. Many families are homeless for the first time, aren’t aware of available resources and don’t know where to find them.
Rita Kelley, director of Bell County Indigent Health Services and chairwoman for Heritage House in Killeen, said the homeless plight occurs daily.
Heritage House is an organization focused on preventing homelessness and helping the indigent get back on their feet, Kelley said.
Services offered through Heritage House include job-skills training, help in applying for housing assistance and making decisions about health. The facility in downtown Killeen is not a homeless shelter, but it does provide the homeless with a place to get mail so they can apply for government assistance.
“If you’re homeless, you don’t have a street address, which means you can’t get any food stamps, disability or indigent health care,” she said. “All those things require having a place to receive mail.”
Despite being faced with homelessness, Collier and Webster were not angered by their situation.
“Adam was our last hope, and I don’t have time to be angry. I have to figure this out before we end up sleeping under a bridge,” Collier said.
Webster said all he could do is pray his luck would somehow change.
“I’ve been homeless before and had to live in my car,” he said. “I’ve made it through worse situations.”
Webster was ordered out of his apartment by Dec. 8. As of Friday, the Killeen Daily Herald was unable to locate him or Collier.
On the streets
Stacey McKenzie, 38, was born in Bennettsville, S.C., but left there early on to make a career in the Army. While stationed at Fort Hood, he met a girl and fell in love.
They moved to Corpus Christi when he was discharged from the Army, and he found work at a chemical plant. For six years, McKenzie and his girlfriend made a good life for themselves, complete with a car, apartment, televisions and cellphones, he said.
“We had the life.”
Then the bottom fell out from under him. About three years ago his girlfriend cheated on him, crashed his car and left him with bills piling up, he said. His employer had to make cutbacks and he was laid off.
“I thought for sure I would be able to find another job,” McKenzie said. “I thought being a veteran would help me in landing a job.”
Praying something good would happen, McKenzie watched his money dwindle, with his credit cards maxed to the limit; no car, no phone, no friends or family. Eventually he was evicted from his apartment and was forced to live alone on the streets. He began wandering across the state, hitchhiking from city to city. Hoping to get a job as a contractor at Fort Hood or on highway construction crews, McKenzie landed in Killeen.
However, he was unsuccessful and joined the ranks of the Central Texas homeless.
‘Homelessness has a face’
In early December, McKenzie sat on the back of a pickup truck parked near Lowes Boulevard, backpack and bedroll sitting nearby, and discussed his experiences on the streets.
“Homelessness has a face,” he said. “It is no longer the dirty old man on the street, drunk and stinking. It is young people. Look at the homeless now and you will see kids, young men and women. Many are on the streets with their pets.”
The face of homelessness in America is indeed changing. People who become homeless no longer fit one general description, which has always included veterans, people with disabilities and single-parent families, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Today, more of the working poor are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Just last year, the national poverty rate rose to include 13.2 percent of the population. Additionally, 1 in 7 people were at risk of going hungry and 3.5 million people were forced to sleep in parks, under bridges, in shelters or cars, according to greenspace.com.
A high cost of living, low-wage jobs and high unemployment rates only exacerbate these problems and force countless Americans to choose between food, housing and other expenses. In Central Texas, the fastest growing homeless population is women and children.
For McKenzie, his choices are few and far between these days. Meeting nothing but dead ends in Killeen, he set out hitchhiking to Dallas last week to look for old Army friends.
“I don’t blame anyone but myself,” he said. “It was my call to let myself drift down this path.”
Alberto Carrillo, 21, decided the best place for him to sleep was the bench in Copperas Cove City Park. Homeless with no friends or family, he felt he had no choice.
“I don’t come from a stable family. So, staying with my mom was not an option,” Carrillo said.
He was unemployed and had nowhere to live but was responsible for supporting his 18-month-old son, Marcelo, and his son’s mother, Megan Chamness, who also was unemployed.
Chamness, 21, previously lived with her great-grandmother, whom she cared for along with her son. But she, too, became homeless.
“My uncle also came to live with my great-grandmother and then my son and I could not stay there anymore,” Chamness said. “Everything just happened and before I knew it, we had nowhere to live.”
Carrillo said he never really thought about his future until he found himself out of high school with no plans. He certainly never expected to be homeless.
“(The future) came about faster than I thought it would. Before I knew it, time had passed and I was still in the same spot,” he said. “I waited until it was crunch time and then had to experience life as an adult on my own.”
When she became a mother at age 19, Chamness never imagined being homeless, especially with a small child.
“All of a sudden, we had no support and we had a kid,” she said. “We had to make life happen out of nothing.”
In early December, as cold weather moved into Central Texas, Carrillo had no place to live and considered sleeping in the park. Wandering around Copperas Cove, he heard about the Cove House Emergency Homeless Shelter and immediately got in touch with Chamness.
Carrillo said he was uneasy about going to Cove House because he doesn’t like asking for help. But the young couple had no choice.
“We needed to be a family,” Chamness said. “I could not afford to be a single mom with nowhere to live.”
The family moved into Cove House on Dec. 8. Both Carrillo and Chamness found work at a local restaurant — he in production and she as a server. The jobs pay minimum wage, but the Texas Workforce Commission pays for child care and the couple takes public transportation to work. With a little money saved, they now live in one of eight apartments in Cove House’s transitional housing unit.
The couple is required to pay $200 rent monthly, with the rent increasing incrementally as they get on their feet financially. They also are responsible for food, utilities and transportation.
“We both wanted to give up because it’s hard,” Chamness said. “We have help now, but we may not always have it. That is something we have both learned.”
While there were no Christmas presents under the tinsel tree tacked to the wall of their tiny living room earlier this month, Carrillo and Chamness counted their blessings.
“(Our son) will get to have Christmas with Mommy and Daddy,” Chamness said. “We will get to spend Christmas as a family. We struggled for a long time, but we finally made it.”