The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Homeless program celebrates first graduate on South Campus

By Edna Horton/managing editor

Visions Unlimited, a South Campus program that helps people living in homeless shelters get a degree, will celebrate its first graduate.

Melissa Bates, known best by her nickname “Red,” will walk across the stage this May and receive her Associate of Arts degree. Bates spent three years without a place to live before she found the program and began classes.

In 2004, Bates lived with her mother, who Bates said was her whole life. Bates said her father left 15 years before, and her mother held the family together. Her mother died in December of that year, and Bates said that’s when her life began to fall apart.

She stayed with friends from a neighborhood church for about a year. Bates said the friends told her they were going to retire and didn’t think they could support three people. She said she was given the choice to either find a job or move out. She was unable to find a job and knew she didn’t want to end up homeless, so she tried to end her life. She spent a month in the hospital and then returned to the home of her friends who turned her away.

“Don’t get me wrong. I have no hard feelings towards them. I understand they were just trying to get me on my feet,” she said. “I was sheltered in ways. I didn’t know much about the world. I didn’t know much about life.”

She spent that night sleeping in a car in her friend’s driveway. In July 2004, Bates went to the Presbyterian Night Shelter in downtown Fort Worth. After staying there a year, she was barred from returning because she had been caught helping friends remove their things from an abandoned building where they had stayed. She ended up staying with some friends at a campsite on a hill behind some weeds. There were only two tents, and a married couple slept in one. Bates had to sleep in the other in between two men.

“It was not good. I did not like it at all,” she said. “I trusted the guys and everything, but I was really scared.”

Bates said she only slept for about 15 or 16 hours that week. After that, she went to the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Fort Worth, where another homeless friend of hers named “Daddy” was living. Bates started working in the kitchen. Her manager, Janet Russell, told her about a program that helped people at the mission get college degrees. Bates then enrolled in the Visions Unlimited program at TCC.

Tina Jenkins, South Campus psychology instructor, said the Visions program started three years ago. Then-Chancellor Leonardo De la Garza heard of a program in El Paso that helped the homeless in the community complete degrees. He decided to start a similar program at TCC and put together a team to make it possible. Jenkins said initially the enrollment was small, but this semester it has grown to two classes.

Jenkins said TCC visits the three shelters in downtown Fort Worth — the Salvation Army, the Presbyterian Night Shelter and the Union Gospel Mission — and gives presentations about the program.

She said caseworkers from the shelters and Texas Workforce Solutions refer students to the program. They have to meet all the same requirements as any other student. TCC and its partners provide school supplies and transportation to the students and give help to those who do not qualify for financial aid.

Jenkins said the students who qualify take only the two Visions psychology classes the first semester: one that helps them with the transition and one that has a career focus. Students cannot take summer classes. Only after the two Visions classes can they take regular courses. Students who are not yet college-ready are sent to the Butler Learning Opportunities Center, a community outreach program in Fort Worth.

“We don’t want to set anyone up for failure,” Jenkins said.

TCC does not offer housing for the students, but Jenkins said she has housing vouchers provided by the Fort Worth Housing Commission. If the students maintain a certain number of hours and a certain GPA, they can receive the vouchers.

Bates said school scared her at first. She was apprehensive as an older student who was homeless. She had always been an OK student, but she said this time she had more of a drive to excel. Bates said she found herself making A’s and B’s in each of her classes.

Bates is now taking classes at Texas Wesleyan University and majoring in English. She writes for The Rambler, Wesleyan’s student newspaper. Bates’ goal once she finishes school is to become a book editor. She said once she achieves her goal and reaches a place in her life where she can help, she will encourage other people who are going through the same thing.

Jenkins said Bates volunteers to speak at Visions classes each semester, and she has been nominated for the Student Excellence Award for Visions Unlimited.

Bates is no longer apprehensive about her homeless background and takes every opportunity she can to talk about her life.

“I eventually became proud of my homeless status. I’ll tell anyone my story,” Bates said. “As I tell people all the time, if it will change at least one person’s preconceptions about homeless people, I will be more than happy to tell my story.”

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