Loaves & Fishes a safety net for the homeless, hungry

HARLINGEN — Crystal Rios was afraid she, her husband and two little boys would be spending Christmas in a homeless shelter.

The family had been making ends meet, “pretty much doing well,” she said.

Her husband, Francisco Garcia III, 32, works remodeling homes. She’s a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom who cares for Francisco IV, 6, and Rogelio, 4, who are both autistic.

Then in late October, they learned Rogelio had a heart problem.

They would have to take him to Corpus Christi to be seen by a doctor at Driscoll Children’s Hospital.

The family was there two and a half days before the doctor came back and said Rogelio would be fine.

But after they returned to Harlingen, they discovered they would be about $100 short on rent. The money that would have gone to rent had been spent on the trip.

They eventually were evicted from their home and had no place else to turn but the shelter at Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley.

“Nobody wanted to help us out, but they took us in,” Crystal said.

She was grateful to Loaves & Fishes. But the boys were having a hard time adjusting to the shelter.

“It was really hard on my little boys. They’re both autistic and they do everything by a routine every day. Once that was broken, they started breaking down,” she said.

“The change for them was really hard and they weren’t sleeping and eating well. And they were always crying.”

With Christmas approaching, she thought, “We were going to be homeless for the holidays.”

Their lives turned around seven days before Christmas — four days after they had arrived at the shelter.

Workers at Loaves & Fishes found an apartment for them and the nonprofit agency paid the deposit, the first month’s rent and the deposit for electricity.

“They paid for everything for the first month so we can get on our feet and that’s really all we needed,” she said.

As she thought about that, she came close to tears and needed to pause a moment to compose herself.

“I’m just really grateful to them,” she said finally.

“They were really kind and understanding and to know that we weren’t a bad family. They understood we were actually going through some hard times.

“I don’t think we would have been able to keep going without them.”

Loaves & Fishes has been helping families like Crystal’s for 25 years.

Their mission is to provide help and hope for the hungry, the homeless and the hurting.

The center in Harlingen is one of 21 local social service organizations benefiting from the AIM Media Texas Charities second annual fundraising campaign.

The campaign was created by the parent company of the Valley Morning Star, The Brownsville Herald, The Monitor in McAllen and Mid-Valley Town Crier to help as many individuals and families as possible.

Loaves & Fishes began in 1991 as a soup kitchen serving hot meals to the needy out of a small building in downtown Harlingen.

Since then, its mission has grown tremendously with the help of generous donations from the community. Today, it provides shelter for the homeless, help for people trying to find a job, emergency assistance for families facing eviction or utility shut-offs, healthy-living information and more.

Pastor Bill Reagan, the center’s executive director, says Harlingen would be a different place without Loaves & Fishes.

“There are a lot of homeless, hungry and hurting people around,” he said.

“I think we would see more people on our streets. There would be more problems with indigency.

“More people would be strapped to make ends meet because when they come to eat in our dining hall, the meals are free and so they can save money for other kinds of needs.”

And more families might be evicted, he said.

“There would be families that wouldn’t be able to pay their rent and utilities and they would be evicted. We help a good many of them,” he said.

Many of their clients are families living paycheck to paycheck who are suddenly faced with an emergency.

“We have people who come in who are going through a tough time. Maybe they do have jobs and they would normally be able to take care of their needs, but some emergency has come up,” Reagan said.

They also see many families who have fallen through the cracks of the health care system and are spending much of their income dealing with health problems.

For whatever reason, they don’t have Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance.

“Their resources are spent up on dealing with those issues,” he said.

Rev. Charles Palmer, pastor of Treasure Hills Presbyterian Church in Harlingen and one of three founding pastors of Loaves & Fishes, said the center fills a gap in social services that was all too apparent before the organization was created.

“It provides a safety net for some in the community who live paycheck to paycheck. It gives them some basis to have some relief if they are experiencing hardship. It is reaching out to individuals with respect and dignity,” Palmer said.

Loaves & Fishes operates on a budget of just under $1 million a year, most of that coming from donations.

What would happen without the donations?

“We would have to cut back severely. We wouldn’t be able to offer three meals a day and we wouldn’t be able to operate the shelter,” Reagan said. “We wouldn’t be able to do Job Shop at all.

“We would be a much different organization without the generosity of the community.”

For that generosity, Crystal is thankful.

Today, she says, the family is doing well thanks to help from the staff at Loaves & Fishes.

“We were able to spend Christmas at home,” she said.

“We didn’t really have any furniture. Just our beds; that was about it.

“But we didn’t mind really not having much because we were in a place of our own.”

Her husband, Francisco, said, “They give us a lot of hope.”