LUBBOCK, Texas — On one of the stormiest nights Lubbock has seen in months, 54-year-old Teri Fontenot laid down for rest under the only roof she could find — a damp bench at Clapp Park in Central Lubbock.
Unlike the stereotypes she herself used to hold about people experiencing homelessness, Teri has no criminal record, has never struggled with addiction or even smoked a cigarette, and is certainly not there by choice.
“Now I know what real homelessness is about,” she said. “Before, I really didn’t pay much attention to the homeless people because I was too busy living my life. I would look down on them… not really look down on them, but I thought they were there because they want to be there. There are some real homeless people out here who once had a life, had a home, had a family, and life just happened and here we are.”
Yet Teri says her position makes it uniquely hard to find help. She says she has been turned away from all major homeless shelters in Lubbock. She says Salvation Army and Grace Campus did not have enough beds for her, and Open Door turned her away because she is “not homeless enough.”
“[Open Door] did an assessment. They said I wasn’t legally disabled, so they couldn’t help me,” Teri said. “So I ended up sleeping in a dumpster and living out of U-Haul trucks, and now I’m living at Clapp Park. But I’m hiding… I’m hiding from the other street people, I’m hiding from the authorities. Not that I do anything wrong — the only thing I do wrong is sleep at Clapp Park. So I come in late at night and leave early in the morning, and I try to work in between being wet, cold, hungry, and tired.”
In response, Open Door issued a statement.
As one of the service providers mentioned in this story, Open Door recognizes the continuing need for shelter, housing, and other services for many of our neighbors in Lubbock. While no single organization can meet all of the needs present in our community, Open Door works alongside other local organizations to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are connected with the appropriate interventions as quickly as possible.Chad Wheeler, Open Door CEO
“No one experiencing homelessness is turned away from any of these locations for ‘not being homeless enough.’ However, housing programs do have various eligibility criteria,” Wheeler continued. “Open Door’s Supportive Housing program is the only program in Lubbock serving people considered chronically homeless. The majority of resources in Lubbock serve people who do not meet this classification. All of the providers mentioned assist people with and without disabilities.”
Teri called herself part of the “working homeless.” Almost every day, she walks more than a mile to work at Red Cap Staffing on 50th Street. It pays enough to cover basic needs, but not enough to return to permanent housing.
That puts Teri and her 25-year-old daughter, who is also sleeping in the park with her mom, in an awkward middle ground. They have a steady, albeit measly, income, and do not have the extenuating circumstances like mental or physical issues that often land others on the streets. They only lost their apartment two months ago, and they may not meet the rigid definition of “chronically homeless” that can open one up to more resources.
Teri says people like her fall through the gaps of the social safety net.
Open Door’s Supportive Housing program, for example, caters to those who are “chronically homeless” and have substance abuse disorders, mental illnesses, or physical disabilities. “However, we have several other programs that provide housing and services for people in situational homelessness, veterans, fleeing domestic violence including sex trafficking, other circumstances,” Wheeler said.
Regardless of those qualifying factors, Teri says she is as homeless as one can be.
“This is not an environment, this is not a lifestyle, that will help me get where I need to be. There’s not really that much, not that I know of, that helps people like me,” she said. “Not everybody is an ex-convict, not everybody is an alcoholic or has a criminal record. There are some people that are homeless but cannot get the help because we are not considered a ‘minority.'”
Until Teri can find those resources, she risks her clean criminal record by sleeping in the park — an infraction of Lubbock ordinances that could subject her to fines she cannot pay.
She now finds protection in the metal roof of the park patio and her two dogs — Thor and Panda. They are house-trained boys that are now guard dogs, just as cold and wet as their owners.
“I feel really bad about that,” Teri said. “They’re house dogs, they shouldn’t be out here. They deserve better, and I want to give them better, it’s just I’m not able to at the moment. But they are very well loved and taken care of.”
As Teri huddled from the storm on Monday, she remembered a past storm that led to her misfortune six months ago. Teri worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice when she says her daughter hydroplaned in a rainy crash that totaled their truck in February. Without a truck, Teri could not get to work, and soon was unable to pay rent. They have been on the street since June.
“The working homeless is when we get up and go to work and try to make some money to pay for things we need like hygiene, bus fare, food,” she said. “But we don’t have a vehicle and we don’t have a place to stay, so it drains us. it’s very draining, but you have to keep going. The working homeless to me is you’re not just being lazy doing nothing all day, you’re actually trying to be productive and get help.”
Small help from community members has made her life easier recently. She says a Clapp Park worker gave her a hefty rain jacket, the one she was wearing on Monday and that she said makes wet nights much easier. She also said a nearby homeowner allowed her to store her few possessions in his garage so that she can walk to work.
Still, she maintains a spirit of optimism.
“On nights like this, it’s actually a beautiful experience because I know one day this too shall pass,” she said. “I want to enjoy the little nuggets that I get while I’m on this journey because I lived in a home, I had my family, I know what that life is about. It’s really beautiful in its own way but on another way its like, I wish I was in a home in my room getting warm and living what they call a civilized life. But then on the other hand, I’m out here with the animals and nature and its kind of like camping out every night. But it’s hard because it’s cold and wet… these nights are hard. I don’t want you to ever know this.”
Teri was initially hesitant to ask for help from this coverage. It’s “not why I shared my story,” she said. But after some helpful viewers saw it, they encouraged her to start this GoFundMe. “We are in need of shelter, transportation, and daily needs for myself, my daughter and our dogs. Any help is so very much appreciated. Thank you,” she said.