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The Montrose Homeless Outreach Project brings new energy to the cause.
By Megan Smith
Houstonian Joshua Baker has always known the value of giving back to others. As a child, he would accompany his “Paw Paw” to volunteer at the local soup kitchen, helping to feed the city’s less fortunate. Considered a chore by most kids, Baker describes his experiences at the kitchen as both rewarding and “so fun.” He continued his service during his time spent at a seminary in Dallas, before moving back to Houston following graduation.
Shortly after his return, Baker attended an Alief school board meeting where he discovered some shocking statistics. At the time, the district had determined that 1,500 of its students were considered to be homeless—on the streets, couch surfing, bouncing from family member to family member, or otherwise without a permanent residence. “That’s an extreme number of homeless students,” Baker says. “I knew that there had to be something I could do.”
In June 2013, Baker founded the Alief Homeless Outreach Project (AHOP), a volunteer-run organization that addresses the needs of the area’s homeless population. Since its start, AHOP has held food distributions, helped organize emergency shelters for the homeless during extreme weather conditions, and much more.
Now that AHOP’s model is well-established and efficient, Baker has decided to expand the operation to serve the needs of Montrose’s homeless community. With the help of his friend Nicholas Curtis, the Montrose Homeless Outreach Project (MHOP) was launched in June. Though MHOP is not specific to the LGBT homeless community, the group plans on serving a large number of people who fit into that category, as 40 percent of the nation’s homeless youth population identifies as LGBT, Baker explains. “As a gay male myself, I always wanted to do something for my community,” says Baker, who serves as chairman of MHOP’s seven-member board. “So after I’d gotten AHOP established and made sure the model was okay and that we were operating well, I decided it was time to expand it.”
As newbies on the block, Baker and Curtis have been in talks with some of the city’s veteran organizations—such as the Montrose Center, Hatch Youth, and the Houston Coalition for the Homeless—to determine how and where MHOP can help. “There’s already so many great organizations in Montrose,” Baker says. “We didn’t want to come in and reinvent the wheel; we want to work well with everyone else. We’re here to say, ‘How can we help?’ and ‘Where do we fit in?’”
During these conversations, Baker explains, it became obvious that permanent housing solutions should be one of MHOP’s main focuses. “There’s temporary shelters, but no real permanent shelters,” Baker says. “So that’s where we think our niche is going to be.”
The group plans on working with apartment complexes in the Montrose area to waive certain requirements—such as pricey deposits—that often prevent the homeless from obtaining safe, stable housing. MHOP also plans on negotiating two months of free rent for those seeking the group’s assistance. “Then we’ll step in and teach them job readiness, financial literacy, and résumé-building skills,” Baker explains. “The goal is to have our own apartment or duplex to serve this community,” he adds. “But until then, we plan on working with the local apartment complexes.”
Regular clothing and food distributions are also top priorities on MHOP’s agenda. The group handed out its first round of donated clothing on the day of Houston Pride, and will continue to do so each Saturday. “That was the first real outreach we’ve done,” says Curtis, who serves as MHOP’s executive director. “We ran out of clothes very quickly, so it helped us recognize the [great] need that’s there.” “What better way to celebrate who you are, than by helping others?” Baker adds. Once a month, MHOP will also partner with the Houston Food Bank to host a food distribution event—a program Baker adopted from AHOP. “In Alief, we feed an average of about 200 families weekly,” Baker says.
“In this country—where we have so much wealth, throw away so much food, and buy new things all the time—there’s no reason someone should have to be on the street,” Baker says. Curtis, who witnessed this waste firsthand during his time spent in the restaurant industry, strongly agrees. “It would constantly bug me how much food would just get thrown away,” he says.
Now that marriage equality has been legalized nationwide, Baker hopes that the LGBT community will direct its attention to other major issues that it faces, including homelessness. “Everything is changing, yet we still have this stigma surrounding homelessness,” he says. “Once we get the community to care, there’s no telling what we can accomplish. We just need to get them excited.”
MHOP is currently accepting monetary donations via their GoFundMe campaign at gofundme.com/y7fvz6p4. All donations will go directly to the group’s outreach programs. The group is also in need of toiletry products, gently used clothing, and toys for distribution. Those interested in volunteering or donating can contact Baker directly at [email protected] or by calling 979.229.6356. For more information, visit facebook.com/pages/Montrose-Homeless-Outreach-Project/1117128211647827?fref=ts.