Collin County opens its first transitional housing

Posted on Jul 19, 2012 in Marc Sparks: In the News | 0 comments

By JAKE BATSELL / The Dallas Morning News

McKINNEY – Aaron Whitaker and his teenage daughter had only $36 and a few gallons of gas last year when they checked into a bunk-bed room at the Samaritan Inn, Collin County’s only homeless shelter.

Aaron Whitaker carries daughter Guyler Easter, 16, into their new home at North Texas Gateway Apartments in McKinney.

On Friday, Mr. Whitaker carried his daughter on a triumphant piggyback ride into their brand-new apartment, where 16-year-old Guyler Easter hangs out in her own room decorated with Tinker Bell stickers.

The father and daughter are among the first residents at the North Texas Gateway Apartments, a 20-unit building that organizers say is the first transitional housing complex in this affluent county.

Transitional housing serves as a bridge between homelessness and full-fledged independence. Gateway residents first must graduate from the shelter across the street and work full-time to qualify for one of the apartments, built with a $2 million gift from Addison entrepreneur Marc Sparks, a longtime Samaritan Inn donor.

Residents pay below-market rents – about one-quarter of their salary – for as long as 18 months, while saving up for their own place. Donors provide furniture and appliances for the apartments, which have the spiffy feel of upscale townhouses, with dark-wood cabinets, tile floors and pewter fixtures.

“You never know giving until you’ve been on the receiving side of it,” said Mr. Whitaker, 50, who until Friday had been homeless since encountering tax problems in late 2006. He works now at a McKinney warehouse, processing trade-in items for a resale Web site.

“These people have literally just opened up their hearts to us,” he said. “It’s not even about knowing us or anything like that, it’s just like, ‘What can we do to help?’ ”

Lynne Sipiora, the Samaritan Inn’s executive director, said contractors donated labor and materials toward the Gateway project, which took more than two years to develop.

“To me, it’s the ultimate collaboration for goodness,” she said. “Collin County desperately needs this.”

Ms. Sipiora said even the most determined graduates of her homeless shelter have a hard time saving enough money to cover all the deposits and start-up costs involved in renting an apartment.

“Add it all up, and a one-bedroom apartment could cost you $1,600 to $1,800 just to get in the door,” she said. “That’s insurmountable. Transitional programs are essential.”

Such programs are more common in Dallas County, which has added hundreds of transitional housing beds since the mid-1980s.

Cindy Honey, executive director of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, said Dallas County has about 1,800 beds for transitional housing.

“This is a great new resource for Collin County,” Ms. Honey said. “It is unrealistic to think that people who have lost everything can get back on their feet after three or seven or 10 days of shelter. Transitional housing is an excellent source to help people stabilize.”

It’s also an effective model, local and national statistics show. The most recent figures say about 66 percent of Dallas County people enrolled in transitional living programs move into some form of permanent housing, Ms. Honey said. That’s better than the national success rate of about 62 percent.

The Gateway apartments will help fill a void for struggling residents looking for shelter in Collin County. Last year, McKinney’s 22-room Budget Motel – one of the county’s few outlets for low-income lodging – was razed after city inspectors declared it structurally substandard.

The residents who moved into the Gateway apartments last weekend all offered praise for the Samaritan Inn, which welcomed them when they had no place else to go. But all savored the moment when they finally claimed a place to call their own.

“I’ll cry later on. I can’t do it right now,” Ms. Pitts said Friday. “I’m cooking breakfast in the morning.”

Emotions were more sudden for Stephen Thorpe, 38, who spent a year and a half on the streets of Austin, Dallas and Houston before finding the Samaritan Inn six months ago. He paused to collect himself Friday as he surveyed his new apartment, furnished with items including a refrigerator, washer/dryer unit and computer.

“This is a very, very proud day of mine,” Mr. Thorpe said. “I’ve worked long and hard for this, and so have the people that are behind me at the Samaritan Inn.”

Mr. Thorpe, who works as a short-order cook and warehouseman, hopes to save enough money to buy a car and eventually start a painting business. As he settled in on Friday, he looked forward to some of the routine tasks that most apartment dwellers take for granted – taking a shower and making a run to Wal-Mart.

“I’m just so appreciative and grateful,” he said. “It’s a miracle. I’m truly, truly blessed.”

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