Have you ever pulled up to a stoplight and seen a man or woman holding up a cardboard sign asking for money and wondered, “What should I do?”
If you give him or her cash, there’s a chance — although not a guarantee — that the money will go toward supporting a bad habit. However, many well-meaning folks hand over a couple bills anyway, perhaps unsure of how else to help.
That’s exactly the kind of scenario the East Dallas-based nonprofit Our Calling is trying to help neighbors avoid.
Every week a search-and-rescue team scours Dallas County, hitting more than 1,200 locations where they’re likely to find homeless men, women and children in need, including several East Dallas areas, such as behind liquor stores, behind the QT on Garland and the 7-Eleven on Buckner, around the water systems at White Rock Lake, all through the woods and under the bridges.
“We’ve found babies, we’ve found bodies, we’ve found everything between people who haven’t eaten in a week, or people who haven’t eaten in a day, and people in desperate situations,” says Wayne Walker, the executive director of Our Calling.
“We utilize thousands of volunteers, many of them in the Lakewood area, to go with us. We’ll have 6,000 volunteers this year and six people on staff. It takes a whole community to serve this need.”
The search-and-rescue teams offer food, water and other emergency supplies to the homeless individuals they encounter.
Our Calling is not a soup kitchen, shelter or medical facility; instead, it partners with organizations that can provide those services. The team offers van rides to people who need access to shelters, rehab facilities or other emergency centers, although many refuse transportation.
“Most of them are what we call shelter-resistant,” Walker explains. “It’s not just about knowing the place; it’s about trusting the people who take you there.
“Our goal is not to pick somebody up, duct tape them and take them to a shelter. Our goal is to build personal relationships with them, and through that is where life change really happens.”
That’s where the Our Calling headquarters come in.
Our Calling is based in a 3,200-square-foot facility in East Dallas. Jonathan Habashy, who works in development at Our Calling, says the building was designed to be a sort of “café for the homeless” because it provides a welcoming place for hundreds of men and women to gather during the day.
The facility serves lunch every day and provides people with necessities like clothing, socks, shoes, blankets and hygiene items, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner. Our Calling also has a washer and dryer, and a shower available for guests to use.
Our Calling’s goal is not to “fix” the individuals they encounter, but rather to build long-term relationships and encourage life changes through mentorship.
“We take people to the shelters, and we take people to the rehabs, but we also care for those who just aren’t interested in either yet,” Walker says.
“Our average guest is between 45 and 65, and 80 percent are addicted to something, and about 75 percent of them have a serious mental health condition. They’re just not interested in some of the programs provided by the city.”
Our Calling is a faith-based organization, and although they don’t believe in “shoving their beliefs down anyone’s throat,” they do believe faith can lead to change.
There’s an app for that
Our Calling serves thousands of men and women every year, and the number of homeless people in Dallas County is increasing, Walker says.
To better serve the at-risk population, Our Calling developed an easy-to-use iPad and iPhone application to help their staff and volunteer members organize important information about the individuals they serve.
The app allows them to take a photo and log biographical information about each of their guests. If they find a man near White Rock Lake, they’ll set a GPS coordinate for the location where they found him. If a woman comes to lunch with bruises, they log the current bruises and have access to previous entries where bruises also were recorded. If someone asks for shoes, knowing shoes are a commodity among the homeless community, Our Calling can track the last time it provided the individual with shoes and how many days are left before he or she qualifies for another pair.
“It gives us an opportunity to really serve people personally, so we’re not herding them around like cattle,” Habashy says. “This is a thoughtful way to manage that relationship, like, ‘How can we love you well? How can we lead you and talk you through some of those life choices?’ ”
Richard Prendergast wasn’t always homeless.
“My biggest problem was success,” he says.
As a young man, Prendergast began drinking and soon crossed the line into alcoholism around age 23. He was a functioning alcoholic for many years while working in the kitchen at Waffle House, but eventually his addiction got the best of him, and he ended up on the streets in Dallas.
He had just turned 54 when Paul Pennington, who leads a search-and-rescue team with Our Calling, found him.
He was in the woods behind a Ford dealership with several other people when Our Calling showed up to serve food and pray with the members of the camp.
Prendergast was passed out on a sheet of plywood, but he got up to help the team set up a tent.
“I was in really rough shape,” he remembers.
Just as the team was about to leave, Prendergast ran after them to ask if they would pray for him. They did, and they told him they would be back out in a few days.
Prendergast told them if they did come back, he’d go with them. As promised, the team returned. Several of the hospitals were full, but Pendergast finally received admittance to the Dallas Life Foundation, which requires every guest to go to chapel.
“It was there that I had my — AA calls it a ‘spiritual experience.’ I call it just a plain miracle,” Prendergast says. “I got serious with Jesus, and he got serious with me. I said, ‘Would you please take it away?’ And he said he would. From that point forward, I haven’t touched a drink since. That was November 30, 2010.”
Prendergast’s story is an exceptional one, but even if things hadn’t played out the way they did, Habashy says Our Calling would still be following up with him four years later, available to help him when he was ready.
Prendergast immediately began volunteering with Our Calling, going out on search-and-rescue missions and helping around the headquarters.
One day it came up in conversation that he was well versed in cooking and kitchen management, so Our Calling decided to hire him as the kitchen manager, which is where he still works.
Since then, he has restored his relationship with his family and straightened out his legal troubles. He recently received a driver’s license, which he thought would never happen.
So, what should I do?
So, here we are, sitting at a red light, trying to figure out what to do: To give or not to give? That is the question.
Habashy points out that one of the most psychologically damaging things people can do is to completely ignore the person standing by the side of the road — to just act like he or she doesn’t exist.
To help, Our Calling developed a different approach. They created a small booklet that includes a map, phone numbers and many other resources which can be purchased on the Our Calling website. Habashy suggests people carry several copies in their car, along with trail mix or granola bars to offer panhandlers, instead of giving them cash.
Our Calling also provides dozens of volunteer opportunities for people of all ages. Neighbors can volunteer as individuals or in groups. There are opportunities to serve food, help around the headquarters, become a part of a search-and-rescue team, be a mentor or lead a Bible study.
If you can’t volunteer time, Our Calling is not opposed to taking monetary donations. In fact, as far as drives go, it’s easier for Our Calling to order things such as hygiene items, food and blankets in bulk. So it’s more cost efficient for people to simply donate money. However, people can also organize clothing, sock or shoe drives to donate.
Our Calling hopes to expand its ministry in the near future, which will require a new building.
To learn more visit ourcalling.org and click the “give” button to donate online. Our Calling is a member of the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, an accreditation agency. Our Calling also has a wish list available on its website.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.