Cold, dreary and misty mornings in late February heighten the plight of our neighbors living without shelter. It’s one thing to shiver against the weather as you make the 50-yard trek from your warm and dry car into a warm and dry Frisco church with a catered breakfast awaiting at the top of the stairs. It’s another thing to have survived the night on the streets with the sunrise bringing little if any relief.
There are homeless among us in our affluent and rapidly growing suburban bubble and a Frisco initiative founded by two dynamic women is rallying neighbors to the cause. A symposium of homeless relief agencies and faith communities gathered at Hope Fellowship in east Frisco for a prayer breakfast to explore ways to step up local efforts to overtake a rising issue in our area.
“Today is your call to action,” said StepUP Frisco co-founder Ann Harris, addressing the audience. “This is your mission. Take action in your own back yard.”
StepUP Frisco was founded by Harris, Frisco Giving Tree co-founder, and Vice Chair and Founding Board Member of the Collin County Homeless Coalition Christine Ortega. Their mission is to “gain support to expand existing homeless programs in Collin County that benefit Frisco,” Ann Harris said.
Harris and her husband Del, Vice President of the Texas Legends and 1995 NBA Coach of the Year with the Los Angeles Lakers, are no strangers to local philanthropy, serving as the Development Chairs of the Frisco arm of City House, a transitional support center for homeless teenagers. They have contributed thousands of volunteer hours over the years because, as she and Coach Harris will tell you, it’s their responsibility.
“God has blessed us so we can be a blessing to others,” Ann said.
The breakfast symposium was designed to introduce representatives of the diverse Frisco faith community to area charities (and each other) and leverage the altruistic directives inherent in all religions to rally for the cause.
“Our faith is deep and our love for people is strong,” Ortega said. “We want to treat our homeless neighbors with dignity and save lives. There is something incomplete, fractured, broken in our society that allows homelessness to exist.”
“Our faith communities are often the first responders to our neighbors in need,” Ann Harris added. “Every community, every congregation can be involved.”
Census data shows that since 2000, Collin County has more than doubled in population and demographers predict a population reaching 3 million in the near future. While Frisco is among the fastest growing cities in the United States (1,000 new residents per month) and Money magazine’s 2018 “Best Place to Live in America,” one area is not growing alongside the population.
“The issue of homelessness will continue to grow but we have the same shelters we had 20 years ago,” Ann Harris said. “Our purpose this morning is three-fold: Make our community more aware, introduce the programs that really need our help, and show how we all can support these programs so they can expand and support even more people.”
“In 2018 we had 4100 homeless people in Collin County,” Christine Ortega said. “As of January 2019, there were 1,298 homeless students across five Collin County school districts, and 104 in Frisco ISD. There are many more of our neighbors on the brink, who are one paycheck away from becoming homeless. It only takes one medical emergency, car accident, divorce, death or a lost job before a family realizes they can’t pay rent. Once they get evicted it becomes much harder to requalify for a place to live,” Ortega said.
Representatives from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Bahá’i communities listened to a panel of homeless charities including the Samaritan Inn, City House, and Family Promise of Collin County explain their missions and the challenges they face. Coordinating efforts and teaming up to take up the cause was a major goal.
“We work with people to help rebuild their lives,” said Sheila Miller, Executive Director of Family Promise of Collin County. “We need help. It’s not that we as a community don’t care; it’s just we don’t know how to connect.” Miller said. She added that the diversity and numbers of local churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other faith communities were keys to success for all organizations in attendance.
“We partner with 14 congregations (at Family Promise) and that’s our secret sauce,” Miller said. “We desperately need more diversification. We need to have more volunteers that reflect the communities we serve.”
Frisco faith community members said they are ready to join the cause.
“We live in an amazing community, and as faith-based organizations, it is our responsibility to give back,” said Laxmi Tummala, representing the Karya Siddhi Hanuman Temple of Frisco. “All faiths have many similarities, and one of those similarities is we all believe in helping other people. The Hindu faith is no different. It’s very important that we take care of our communities and our neighbors and our world, and that we pray for peace, and that we lead by example,” Tummala added. “Together we make a better community. There are lots of commonalities in the faiths that make up our community: Do good, be good, help other people – these are common in all faiths.”
“In Islam, we are taught to serve the less fortunate among us,” said Aisha Waheed, President/CEO of Gracious Enterprises Dream Safe Home. “Everyone in the community should take a proactive approach to homelessness. We are all called by God to serve. It is our responsibility to take care of each other.”
Anisah Shahidzadeh, a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’i Faith of Frisco and Optometric Director of EyeQ Vision, agreed that service to others is a cornerstone of all faiths. “Bahá’i inspired initiatives around the world are motivated by a sincere desire to serve humanity and seek to promote the social and material well-being of all people, regardless of race, gender, economic status or any other factor,” she said. Shahidzadeh shared that EyeQ Vision has plans to donate eye care services to residents of the Samaritan Inn and City House in the near future. “Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’i Faith tells us, ‘flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him,” she said. “He warns us about turning away from ‘the downtrodden’ and assures us that God will help us help them.”
Ann Harris said StepUP Frisco is a clarion call for the entire community. She said now is the time to get ahead of a rapidly rising problem.
“We ask that you ‘step up’ by supporting existing homeless programs and by helping them to expand before we have chronic homeless issues on the streets of Frisco,” she said.