Story by Chandler Lewis. Photos by Jan Osborn.
In 1987, three churches in Arlington got together to form a homeless shelter that would go on to serve the local homeless population for the next thirty-five years and counting. Stephanie Melchert, Executive Director of what is now called Arlington Life Shelter, was involved decades before she would ever come to work at the shelter itself. We met with her in the computer lab of the shelter, donated by the Dallas Mavs Foundation, to talk about not only her history with the shelter, but the history of the shelter itself.
“The really neat full circle about this entire thing is that way back in the early and mid ‘90s, I was with Advent Lutheran…and I was a Food Team Leader,” Melchert said. Advent Lutheran Church had one of the food teams assisting the shelter at that time.
“What those food teams do is they provide dinner for our residents…so a food team might come in and do spaghetti meatballs, salad, garlic bread, some sort of dessert, and then sack lunches,” Melchert said.
The residents of the shelter in the 1990s needed those sack lunches, because Arlington Life Shelter wasn’t always a 24/7, 365 day shelter.
“We were a night shelter to begin with. So a hot meal, a shower, if they needed to do some laundry…then they would wake up the next morning, have breakfast, take a sack lunch and leave,” Melchert explained.
Melchert still remembers her first time being in the shelter, and how much it shocked her.
“I remember the first time walking through the shelter. I will admit I had the preconceived notion of what is a homeless shelter…I went through the men’s dormitory and it was just very, very eye opening,” she said. “I remember seeing a little boy in there and that probably pulled a lot harder on my heartstrings because I wasn’t expecting that,” she recalled.
Melchert is now extremely aware of those preconceived notions about the homeless and how ubiquitous they are.
“One of the myths, I would say, is that the number one reason why someone becomes homeless is because of some sort of an addiction. Actually, the number one reason here in North Texas for why someone is homeless is because of affordable housing. The number two reason is for (people who are) underemployed or unemployed,” she said.
“(Someone) might be working a full-time job at $10/hour with $1200 rent…They have their car payment, they have their insurance, they have medical bills, living expenses, and then something happens in their life,” Melchert explained.
“Let’s say they were in a car accident. They have to make that choice…If they don’t have their car fixed, they can’t go to work. So they make the choice to get their car fixed. They can’t pay their rent, and then they feel like they can make it up next month, but it’s a snowball effect.”
Today, Arlington Life Shelter has a serious focus on providing its residents with the access to employment that they need to thrive.
“Seventy-five percent of our clients do have jobs, but as I mentioned, they might be underemployed,” Melchert said. “The nice thing about this Dallas Mavs Foundation computer lab is during COVID…we had some of our residents work remote in this lab.” The shelter also has a focus on finding their unemployed residents work.
“With our employment program, we partner with Goodwill…They come in twice a week. They meet with each one of our residents, figure out what their skills are, what their aspirations are,” Melchert said. “They help them get their jobs.” The shelter wants to give people the skills they need to make their own way. “Our whole mission is for them to be self-sufficient.”
Not only has the Arlington Life Shelter expanded its resources for its residents, but also its capacity and operating hours.
“We renovated the old building, and we added an additional twelve thousand square feet, so today we are twenty-seven thousand square feet. We are 24/7, 365 days a year,” Melchert said. In order to fund this expansion, the shelter embarked on a capital campaign in 2017. They raised $6.2 Million.
As a result of this expansion, the shelter was able to increase its capacity to 120 people, plus an additional 20 during inclement weather. True to the conviction Melchert felt when she saw that little boy in the shelter decades ago, much of this new capacity is sheltering families.
“The biggest reason why we embarked on a capital campaign was to serve more families. Our second floor is only for families and we have seven family bedrooms. Most of the bedrooms can hold up to six people.”
While the shelter is currently done with expanding its facilities, it’s not done finding ways to serve more people.
“Our internal plan is to really get us to that 120 (residents)…If we had literally 120 people in here right now, we wouldn’t be able to serve them because we don’t have enough tables and chairs. Do we need more computers? You know, stuff like that,” Melchert said.
Melchert stressed the importance of continued support from the community.
“We had this great capital campaign, we have this amazing new building, we’re serving more people, but we still need more money for our capital.”
Stephanie Melchert has overseen the operations of Arlington Life Shelter through its most transformative period. The shelter is now helping more people than it ever has, and is on the path to helping even more. So, what does doing good mean to her?
“Just be kind…If you don’t know anybody that’s being kind, just be kind. You just never know what someone else is experiencing that day. They might be having a really hard day. Just be kind.”