BROWNSVILLE — Seven-year-old Jaret Ennmanuel Nino took aim with his Nerf gun and fired. Before the passerby could see who did it, he ducked underneath the window frame of the family unit at the Ozanam Center in Brownsville, and then peeked out with a mischievous grin.
He and his mother, Estele Gaspar of Brownsville, lost their home — a trailer they purchased last April — when Gaspar could not make ends meet.
“My rent was too high. I was cleaning homes for a living, but it wasn’t enough,” Gaspar said. “Here, at the Ozanam shelter, toys have been given to my kids, and we’re doing much better. They can play around and they’re happy.”
The shelter provides room and board to anyone who does not have a place to sleep.
Occupants at the shelter receive three warm meals a day, a bed, showers and clothing donated from the community.
Within a few days of staying at the shelter, occupants will be contacted by a case manager to determine what type of assistance is needed, whether it be rehousing, social services or additional time at the shelter.
“We have a lot of families here in the Rio Grande Valley that unfortunately are only just a paycheck away from being homeless,” said Victor Maldonado, executive director of the shelter.
“What happens is, there comes a time when a landlord doesn’t want to continue waiting for a monthly rental payment, so the individual gets evicted, and many end up here.”
The Ozanam Center is one of the 21 local charities benefiting from the AIM Media Texas Charities second annual fundraising campaign. The 2015-2016 campaign will run through Jan. 31. The campaign was created to help as many individuals and families as possible, by supporting social service organizations.
The organizations will receive 100 percent of all monies donated thanks to AIM Media Texas — parent company of the Valley Morning Star, The Brownsville Herald, The Monitor in McAllen and Mid-Valley Town Crier — covering all administrative costs associated with the endeavor.
The funds will help the Ozanam Center to continue operating and will allow the shelter to purchase more hygienic items, clothing, medication and food for occupants.
“There is never enough. As the years go by, the competition for funding is extremely hard. Why? Because there’s other shelters that need the money, too,” Maldonado said. “The funding is at times less, so we have to do more with less every year. We have to adjust somewhere somehow, but we do find a way.”
Because the shelter is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, operational costs are steep, and of the 13 employees at the shelter, almost half are part-time.
“On Fridays, we don’t just close the center and say, ‘That’s it.’ We have to be around the clock, and it is very expensive to have a skeleton crew 24 hours a day. It adds up. We depend a lot on volunteer services,” Maldonado said. “That’s how we do a lot of the maintenance here at the shelter.”
The shelter has five family units, where all family members can share a private room, and a men’s and women’s dormitory.
For the children, a small tutoring lab is available where a private tutor from the Brownsville Independent School District will be available during the evenings. Children also have access to computers in the lab.
The shelter also has been able to build a walk-in freezer in recent years.
These accommodations go a long way in helping occupants adjust as comfortably as possible during their stay.
Christina Beltran of Brownsville was staying at the shelter with her 9-year-old daughter Stephanie after having drifted from place to place.
“We didn’t really have anything to eat, so we decided to come over here. They feed us, give us a nice bed, some clothes, hygienic items and anything else we need,” Beltran said. “I’m currently working now, and they’re helping me to get a house. Hopefully, we’ll be out of here soon.”
But as soon as one person is helped and can transition out of the shelter, another comes in, continuing the cycle, Maldonado said.
“Every day someone is coming in and out, but they help everybody. We got here without anything, and now we have (clothes and hygienic items). We’re overwhelmed,” Beltran said.
Ideally, the Ozanam Center is able to help every individual get back up on his or her feet. In a few instances, Maldonado can recall seeing everything come full circle.
One individual, Maldonado said, stayed at the shelter and was always helping out. After a few months, a position as a security guard opened up, and Maldonado encouraged the man to give it a shot.
“He did very well and after a short period, we were able to assist him with rehousing and get him into a new apartment. Later on, because his background was in shrimping, he made contact with some friends and was offered a shrimping position making good money,” Maldonado said.
In another instance, Maldonado recalls helping a family relocate into an apartment and the husband was able to go on to become a successful mechanic.
“Those are good stories, when people are able to pave their way up, pay their rent and keep everything up to date,” Maldonado said. “And every now and then, they’ll come back with donations because they understand. It comes full circle.”