Leaving a Pawprint

Story by Bailey Brammer | Photo by Maryse Bombito

Students step outside ‘Baylor Bubble’ and address issue of poverty and homelessness in Waco

The farther students travel outside the “Baylor Bubble” and past the “Magnolia Monarchy,” the more evident Waco’s financial situation becomes.

As of 2016, 27.5 percent of Waco residents were reported to live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates. In comparison, the state of Texas has about 20 percent of its population living below the poverty line, and the national poverty rate is about 12.7 percent. With a poverty rate double the national average, homelessness is prevalent in Waco.

In 2005, Waco city officials and local service agencies created a 10-year plan to put an end to Waco’s chronic homelessness, according to the city of Waco’s website. While Waco’s homeless population did indeed drop because of these efforts, there is still a pressing need for the various organizations and shelters around the city to offer assistance to those in need.

Baylor senior Luke Harris is one of the many students who has taken the city’s poverty rates personally, and he decided to do something to help the Waco community and affect change in any way he can.

“Unfortunately, homelessness is extremely common in Waco,” Harris said. “Frequently, I hear students complain about the amount of homeless people asking for food, money or general help around the fast food restaurants that make up the ‘grease pit.’ It’s difficult for both the students who do not feel comfortable and for those asking for help who feel marginalized at times.”

As a member of the service committee of the American Medical Student Association at Baylor, Harris leads an event called Friday Morning Breakfast once a week. Harris and other members serve a meal to the homeless at the Meyer Center Community Clinic and were part of the reason this tradition was restarted after being inactive previous years.

“I love serving,” Harris said. “It energizes me, and when I had the opportunity to work with those who I have a passion for, I decided to do it.”

Other organizations on campus also donate their time and money to various philanthropies and nonprofits in Waco. In particular, the Salvation Army offers a multitude of resources to the homeless population, and is always seeking volunteers.

The Salvation Army’s purpose is “motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”

Groups at Baylor such as the Alpha Lambda Delta honor society regularly volunteer with the Salvation Army, and the Waco branch alone offers plenty of opportunities for getting involved.

Similar to Harris, Baylor senior Lindsey Nishimiya works with the Waco Family Abuse Center, which also assists the homeless population, but under specific circumstances.
The Family Abuse Center aims to provide housing, food, clothing, counsel and more to victims and families affected by domestic violence. By definition, men and women who live in a shelter are homeless, and the Family Abuse Center tailors its care to individuals who have had to leave their previous homes because of abuse.

Nishimiya serves as the Housing Program intern through the social work school at Baylor, and said she chose to work there because of what the Family Abuse Center does to help the Waco community. Through federal grants and donations, the center currently houses more than 50 clients, including children.

“I think homelessness is a large issue in Waco, and I know that the Family Abuse Center is only able to help a fraction of those people because of their specific cause in domestic violence,” Nishimiya said. “But the center helps thousands of individuals every year in their issues of homelessness. Homelessness is most noticeable in Waco when I take hotline calls at the shelter and see how many people need a place to stay, and aren’t victims of domestic violence.”

Although the center’s resources for the homeless are limited to victims of domestic abuse, the city of Waco has made assisting those under the poverty line an active part of its mission moving forward.

According to its website, the city of Waco has dispelled eight myths about homelessness, covering common statements such as “all homeless people are drunks or addicts” or “people are homeless because they are lazy.”

Harris disagrees with one of these myths in particular, that “homeless people are not our responsibility.” Harris said he sees many ways Baylor students, as well as the entire community, can donate their time and talent to those in need.

“Baylor students serving is an incredible liaison between college students and those who have only dreamed of going to college,” Harris said. “It’s a marvelously humbling opportunity to encourage and empower those. It also gives Baylor students a different perspective on homelessness and joblessness. Many students have never had an intentional conversation with a homeless person before and that can change any person’s life.”

Dr. Andrew Hogue, director of the philanthropy and public service program at Baylor, said students, as well as the Waco community, have a unique opportunity to make an impact on the poverty and homelessness enveloping the city.

“Any city is made better when there are bright, talented, smart young people choosing to take part in determining its fate,” Hogue said. “Waco is no exception — we’ll be better if more Baylor grads stick around and continue the positive trajectory that this city has been on for the last decade or so.”

Hogue also serves as a senior lecturer in the Honors College at Baylor, and said students often take away two main things from his teaching.

“They learn some of what it takes to build a strong and vibrant community — that it’s more than just volunteering or giving money, as important as those things are,” Hogue said. “The other is that they realize there is more interesting and inspiring stuff going on in Waco than they ever supposed, that this city is full of social innovators doing creative and high-impact work in more corners than they realized this city has.”

Above all, Hogue said his motivation to continue his philanthropic work and to inspire his students stems from deep-seeded gratitude.

“We’re all at our best when we’re taking part in things that are bigger than ourselves, things that bring us together when there are so many forces in our world that want to tear us apart,” Hogue said. “I’m convinced that when we’re grateful, we’re also generous, and when we’re generous, we encounter all sorts of good, interesting and hopeful surprises.”