The Philanthropy Collaborative

Regional Case Studies

Turning Point Center
Houston, TX

Just like teenage and younger workers, older workers face real difficulties when looking for jobs. Although they are less likely to get fired, they are much less likely to be re-hired once laid off. As of May 2011, it took workers aged 55 to 64 an average of 45 weeks to find a new job - much longer than younger workers. In fact, older workers face the very real possibility they may never re-enter the workforce. In addition, long-term unemployment undermines their retirement security, since workers who are forced to request Social Security benefits early will receive lower retirement benefits for the rest of their lives. Anecdotal evidence indicates that some employers are quick to lay-off or terminate older employees with long tenures to avoid paying retirement or increasing premiums for health benefits.

When older people live paycheck to paycheck, the result of being laid off is often disastrous. The number of homeless elders, age 62 and older, is projected to increase by 33 percent from 2010 to 2020. It is projected to more than double between 2010 and 2050.

The elderly homeless are of special concern because of their frailty, their vulnerability and their sensitivity to harsh conditions of life on the street. Many elderly face serious medical issues, causing hospitalization, and requiring them to exhaust all their financial avenues - including emptying savings accounts and selling homes and cars. Many of these older patients are released from hospitals with no place to go other than the streets. Turning Point Center in Houston takes these patients in and offers them food, shelter and supportive services helping them to heal, acquire eligible benefits, get back on their feet and find gainful employment.

Isha Sales Desselle, a native of Trinidad who came to the United States as a teenager , started the Turning Point Center after a trip to India where she saw a woman begging on the street who looked like her mother. She started her program in the unlikeliest of sites - a former drug infested apartment building in Houston. Desselle purchased the dilapidated building in 1988 and rehabilitated it. In 2003, she renamed it the Turning Point Center with a mission of providing a home, counseling and retraining center for elderly residents. Originally named Rehab Mission, Desselle renamed the program after realizing the stigma attached to the residents from others in the community thinking they were only housing drug and alcohol addicts.

"I sold my house, put a down payment on the rundown apartment complex, and kicked everyone out," Deselle said, "and then we just got started."

She started by providing food twice a day to the area's homeless population. "I had a mail truck that you had to push to get started, so I had two people that had stayed in the apartment complex help get me on the road - and then I collected donated food from grocery stores, butcher shops, and anyone else that would help me."

Soon, Desselle was feeding 250 people a day - and that wasn't all. "The ones that needed a place to stay," Desselle said, "I brought back to the apartment complex." The agreement she made with the younger residents of the complex was this: you can stay, if you help get the place ready for the elderly residents she planned to serve. Soon, she was feeding people on the street and in the complex - and that meant some serious budget stretching.

"I've been cooking since I was nine, and I'm one of 14 children, so I know what it's like to have to stretch food and make ends meet," said Desselle. "You don't just cut a chicken: you strip shred it."

Shortly after purchasing the property, the facility received nonprofit status and Desselle began incorporating programs to provide support for people 50 and older who agreed to stringent rules: no drugs; no alcohol; no cursing; and hard work. She increased her clients' confidence by matching their skills and talents with duties at the mission, focusing on a "can do" attitude.

In addition to providing a safe and healthy place to live and providing training services, The Turning Point Center also provides services for its residents. Although currently the center is running slightly below capacity, it can provide up to 180 clients at a time with shelter and three daily meals. It also helps residents obtain documents needed for identification, driving, employment, medical aid and other public assistance. Residents can also receive job training and, through governmental or faith-based assistance, get help in obtaining their GED, admittance to a trade or vocational training school or attend college.

As of 2011, the Turning Point Center was Houston's only homeless shelter for the elderly, and had helped more than 10,000 individuals. Desselle's contributions have not gone unnoticed; she was the only Texan to receive an Older Volunteers Enrich America Award in Washington, DC and has received numerous other local and national awards for her continuing work with the elderly homeless.

The future continues to look bright for the Turning Point Center more than two decades after Desselle purchased the property. The program has a main facility, which can serve up to 100 people at a time (right now they are housing about 80), and a step-down unit, which is currently serving 45 people. "The step-down facility lets us see which people are ready to leave. If they're ready, they can use us as a reference for a new place to live," said Desselle. "And if not, we can bring them back until they are."

In 2009, the center finished construction on a new resource center next door to its shelter. The 6,076-square-foot, nearly-million-dollar center allowed the organization to expand its existing services while adding professional instructors, social and health providers, a technology and learning lab, conference and seminar rooms, interview and screening areas and a room for sorting and storing clothing donations.

Houston City Council Member Helena Brown recently visited Turning Point, and was impressed by what she saw. Turning Point, she said, meets the needs of "a uniquely disadvantaged population in Houston, the elderly homeless. With the help of private and community funding, Turning Point is helping individuals 50 years and older gain the skills they need to re-enter the workforce and return to productive society. I am very happy [about] the positive impact this organization has had in District A."

Desselle says the support Turning Point has received from their foundation partners has been invaluable. "Foundation support is the lifeline of our program. Food and shelter is great, but that's not enough," she said. "Without the foundations, we wouldn't be able to offer the life skills classes and other support services that we do - and those are critical for our residents."

"When people come to see Turning Point," Desselle continued, "they tell me that they like what they see in the faces of the people here. Everyone you see here - the person that answers the phone, the facility maintenance workers, everyone - they were once residents. We focus on what a person can do - and we're always looking to do things better."

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