Fort Bend county commissioners heard last week from a coalition of nonprofit agencies that serve youth and the homeless about the need for a more concerted effort to address a growing problems of homelessness. They asked the court to devote up to $13 million from unused federal American Recovery Act funds for a multi-year, multi-phased program.
Similarly, a representative of the Fort Bend chapter of the American Federation of Teachers asked the commissioners for $221,460 as "seed money" for a pilot project meant to address the growing shortage of teachers by offering alternative teaching certificates to people, especially in a few critical subject areas, who would agree to teach in Fort Bend ISD schools for two years.
While the commissioners were largely receptive to the merits of the proposals, some were leery of diverting ARA funds from already committed infrastructure projects, the expansion of broadband Internet access across the county, or from addressing the county's employee and retiree healthcare obligations.
Shannon Stavinhola, executive director of the Parks Youth Ranch, a camp for abused and neglected children, served as the spokesperson for the coalition, which also includes Attack Poverty!, the George Foundation, and the Henderson-Wessendorff Foundation, in the presentation of the proposal.
Stavinhola laid out the scope of the homelessness problem in the county, which has been increasing in recent years. According to Fort Bend ISD, she said, 9.4 percent of all children under 18 are without stable housing. Much of the problem stems from the lack of affordable housing as rental prices in Fort Bend outpace the averages in Texas and nationally, she said.
"Affordable housing is missing in Fort Bend County, and that is a shame," she said.
Many families are living in houses that are unfit for habitations, with no running water or electricity, she said, while other families are "doubling up" or even "tripling up" in homes meant for single families.
Staninhola laid out the three-phased proposal. The first phase, to serve immediate needs for 100 families, would require $1.5 million in construction costs, with $500 annually over two years for operating and maintenance costs. The second phase, in the second and third years, would build an eight-plex facility at $1 million and a 400-unit facility at $5 million.
In the third phase, a multi-family recovery center would be built for $40 million. The facility would offer not just housing but services that would help families achieve financial stability and ultimately long-term housing. This phase would also include a 20-unit project and the construction of 25 "tiny homes."
Stavinhola said the coalition had already identified numerous public and private sources of funding that would allow for the operating and maintenance of the facilities in the long term.
When it came time for questions from the commissioners, there were many as well as a strenuous debate about what the county's priorities should be. The matter was first broached in an earlier meeting.
Newly sworn-in Precinct 4 Commissioner Dexter McCoy said he was fully committed to addressing the homelessness issue in the county, but was concerned that diverting the federal funds might impeded the county's work in expanding broadband access, one of his top priorities.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Vincent Morales cited longstanding infrastructure needs in some of county's rural areas and smaller cities such as Needville and Meadows Place that the county government has already pledged to address. Morales said the county should fulfill those commitments as a priority.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers, long known as the most ardent deficit hawk on the court, read from a prepared statement about the county's significant obligations to its employees' and retirees' healthcare benefits, which he said currently stands at $500 million and is growing at $40-45 million a year.
Meyers acknowledged the merit of the homelessness issue, but emphasized that the debt obligation issue should be paramount among the court's priorities.
County Judge KP George said he didn't disagree on any of the issues raised by his colleagues. He joked that he's heard Meyers's statement so many times that the commissioner must keep it continuously in his pocket.
But George said, the American Recovery Act funds, a COVID-era program that offered billions to local jurisdictions in the wake of the pandemic, offered the county a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to address the homelessness problems, particularly for youth.
Later, Glenda Guzman Macal, president of the Fort Bend chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, presented a proposal for a joint program between her organization, Houston Community College and Fort Bend ISD.
Macal, a former Fort Bend ISD bilingual and special education teacher, discussed the nationwide shortage of qualified teachers, as school districts struggle to recruit and retain teachers. A recent poll of Fort Bend ISD teachers showed that 77 percent are considering leaving the profession.
The pilot program would recruit people who would earn alternative teachers certifications to teach, with particularly emphasis on bilingual, special education, and STEM courses. The AFT chapter would administer the program with assistance from HCC, and the newly minted teachers would agree to teach in Fort Bend ISD schools for at least two years.
During discussion, Meyers noted that his daughter is a 20-year teacher in Katy ISD. "The real problem is that we're not paying our teachers enough," he said.
Morales asked Macal whether her group had sought funding from Fort Bend ISD's Education Foundation. Macal responded that they had not, as the proposed program would not be part of Fort Bend ISD's budget. Morales replied that it might be better for the district to be more directly involved, as education is not a typical function of county government.
In the end, the commissioners agreed that there should be more discussion of both proposals and their relationship to the county's budget proposals. Both items were tabled for a later workshop discussion.
A video of the full meeting, including a link to the homelessness proposal, can be found at fortbendcountytx.gov.
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