Chamber hears of Bay Area Homeless Shelter

By David Taylor
Managing Editor

HIGHLANDS – The Chamber of Commerce luncheon featured a talk about the Bay Area Homeless Shelter, by its VP Jim Wadzinski.

He told the story of a police chaplain and pastor riding shotgun with officers in ride-alongs and noticing something bothersome. Rev. Mack Cook noticed a lot of homeless folks wandering around the streets of his hometown Baytown, and he wanted to do something about it.

He began picking up some of them and bringing them home with him. Every weekend, he’d have five, six or seven people in his house who he and his wife Bettye fed and welcomed with open arms. After six months, however, they both knew this wasn’t a good idea and began to look for a place where they could provide more help on a permanent basis.

“They moved into a house on Wisconsin Street in old Baytown and named their homeless encampment Sheltering Arms,” said Jim Wadzinski, vice president of the board of the charity, to attendees at the Highlands Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

It was later renamed to Bay Area Homeless Shelter Services and since 1983 has been a viable resource to the citizens of Baytown.

Cook passed away in 2009, but the work he began continues to thrive and grow in his absence.

It’s the only full-service shelter that provides services to the homeless in east Harris, Liberty, and Chambers counties, but not in the same sense one might normally think of a shelter.

“When you say homeless shelter, you might think of something a little more along the line of Star of Hope in Houston where you show up at 5 p.m., receive a bed if it’s available for the night, take a shower, be fed a hot meal, and by 7 a.m. the next day, you’re out on the street on your own again,” Wadzinski said. “That’s not how Bay Area works.”

He described the vision of Cook as a place with more comprehensive services to give the homeless a lift back onto their feet and return them as a functioning member of society and contributing members.

In terms of financial impact, Wadzinski said they estimated the residents returning to the community impacted the local economy by up to $1 million in revenue.

“That includes rental properties, goods and services, transportation, and much more,” he said, “which makes us a vital resource to the town.”

The ministry expanded from the one building on Wisconsin Street now to three buildings. The administration building which houses the offices is about 100 years old. The men’s shelter next door is also 100 years old, and the women’s shelter is behind the administration building and is a younger building.

The Britton-Fuller Family Center Program was opened in 2016 and can house six intact families of five members at any given time. The facility helps the shelter abide by federal requirements and allow families to remain together.

“We had a sad case of a 19-year-old lady working for McDonalds making about $12 an hour. Her mom and dad were killed in a car accident and as the only child, she’s now left with the house and a mortgage payment. She was able to make her mortgage payments, but the city of Houston came in and condemned the house and tore it down. She now has no place to live and is still saddled with the mortgage. She now must pay for a house that doesn’t exist,” Wadzinski said.

She ended up sleeping in her car and found her way to Bay Area Homeless, where she receives help.

“We ran her through our program, got her enrolled in Lee College in their carpenter apprentice program. Nine months later, she left with her certification and is roughly earning $30 an hour,” he said.

In another case, a young lady from the East Coast had gone through a divorce and was wanting to move to get away from her circumstances. She came to Houston with her daughter and was hired as a teacher in Channelview ISD. She had paid a deposit on a rental house, but the house wasn’t available, and she couldn’t get her money back.

“She’s stuck here with no money in the bank, and no check from her job for another two to four weeks. She’s looking at no income for the next six weeks. After a few paychecks, she had earned enough to rent an apartment. We were able to provide a safe place for her and the child during that time.”

Depending on their length of stay, Wadzinski said the organization can assist them with job searches and writing resumes, teach them financial literacy, and help with other life skills.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as trying to help them get an ID, or get them access to a phone, or computer,” he said.

In 2023, BAHS helped 30 unemployed adults find employment with 26 different employers in the area, adding up to $787,000 added to the local economy.

The shelter is experiencing an operational funds crisis with the inability to increase wages for their caseworkers and pay for food and supplies.

“We operate 24/7 and 365 days per year,” he said.

Residents do their part in sharing chores around the shelter, but Wadzinski pointed to the aging buildings and high maintenance.

“They were never built for something like this,” he said.

A capital campaign is underway led by Steve Don Carlos, and he’s asking everyone in the community to pitch in and help.

They are planning a fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency on February 24. To learn more about how to help the shelter, visit their website at www.