More than 111,000 students in Texas schools are experiencing homelessness, and at least fifteen percent of those are without a parent or guardian. According to the Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS), ninety percent of homeless children are living in transitory housing like shelters, hotels or motels, or doubling up with families and friends; the other 10% are on the street, in vehicles, abandoned buildings or sheds.
Homeless children are frequently hungry, sick, anxious, grieving and traumatized by violence they have seen or experienced. The loss of safety, stability, privacy, and the comforts of home, as well as friends, pets, possessions, reassuring routines, and community can leave deep, lasting scars. As a result, homeless children tend to develop more slowly, physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. Many struggle in school, missing days, repeating grades, and even dropping out of school entirely. Not only are children and their families impacted by homelessness, their communities also suffer. Homeless parents and teens find it difficult to obtain higher education, find and maintain jobs that provide livable wages, provide adequate healthcare and childcare, have reliable transportation, get and retain proper and current legal documentation, and are at increased risk for criminal activity, either as victims or perpetrators. Enter Angela Giessner, a small business owner and community builder, who in the fall of 2003, learned about a homeless boy living in a box in the alley behind a local grocery store. Alarmed that there was no shelter available for this boy, or the estimated 1200-1500 others in her city just like him, Angela gathered other business, church, and community leaders, an attorney, and a number of concerned citizens to create LifeLine Shelter for Families. “I saw that there were hurting people out there, especially children,” Angela said. “I just couldn’t walk away from the problem. I couldn’t walk away from the kids. We couldn’t ignore it. Our city would not be proud of themselves if they didn’t do something about this.” Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, Angela said, “I felt like we needed to go forward and do what we can do. I was cautioned about that because it had been tried before and did more damage than good. What do I know? All I knew awas banking and insurance, I was not a trained social worker.” But Angela started taking classes and attending conferences, getting advice from people who were doing similar projects, and surrounding herself with people of vision and passion. She invited proven leaders with strong organizational skills and a long history of community involvement to be on the LifeLine board. “The best thing is the leadership we have in there. We all work well together. And it would take all of us,” she said. “We’re all opinionated. We need every opinion and bit of advice, and we all draw on each other’s opinions and strengths. But still, we couldn’t have done it without God being involved in it, and without giving Him credit for all the things He gave us.” Angela and her husband Ralph were the first to give. Calls went out and people began to bring donations. The city was also quick to respond. “It was amazing. We all saw the need for it. We knew we had to take it a step at a time. People wanted to help. Everybody does their little part that they can do, and it just works out beautifully.” The Dallas Morning News and others began to provide grants. The annual Freedom Luncheon and Auction in June, and the LifeLine Concert in September also help generate funds and awareness. This year’s concert will be held September 18, 2021, at 7:00 p.m., at First Baptist Church Grand Prairie.
LifeLine began by providing furnished apartments for the families of homeless students in the school district. By using apartments, they were able to help complexes fill vacancies, and take advantage of the services they offered renters, like maintenance, insurance, security, and other amenities. This proved to be a better and more immediate option than finding land, building, staffing and maintaining a freestanding shelter. At the apartments, families were able to blend in and begin to put their lives back together. To date, LifeLine has sheltered over 7,000 people. Ninety percent are single mom families. At least five other school districts have followed suit. “The families were just so happy to be in a good place. They were happy there. Nobody needed to know they were homeless. It gave them dignity,” Angela said. Fear and shame often keep homeless families in the shadows. “A lot of times they won’t come forward. They are not the kind to ask for help. They are often told, ‘If you’re homeless, they’ll take your kids away.’ When you’re in that deep grief of all you’re going through, you’re just gasping for air. You can not even think, ‘What do I do first? How can I get myself out of this situation?’ One of the first things we do is teach them how not to get in that situation again. LifeLine also helps with continuing education and job training. “We had to help the parents or caregivers. Many weren’t taught goals or skills when they were growing up. They work far below their level to work. If we help them, we ultimately help the kids. When kids see how mom is reacting to this, and how mom pulled herself out–or dad–it gives them hope.”
Once there was a mother with four children sleeping in a pick-up truck with broken windows. It was a cold rainy night when LifeLine stepped in to help. “She sent the nicest card,” Angela recalled. “It said something like, ‘You picked me up, dusted me off, got me going in the right direction. Now my kids are in the National Honor Society, band, boy scouts, all the good things you hope kids will be involved in. By the way, we have windows in our truck now.’” Angela tells about another family where the mother was so desperate, she was going to commit suicide. “Now that she was through the program and was not in danger, and the kids were doing real well, she was really proud of what she had accomplished, and she wanted me to hear her story. I would have never known. It gives me chills. What if l had not been there? What would those people have done? Angela Giessner is the owner of Giessner Insurance Agency, and is a long-standing and influential member in her community. She has received the Community Builder Award, being recognized for her leadership in Soroptimists, Grand Prairie Women’s Club, Grand Prairie High School Alumni Association, Grand Prairie Library Association, Boys and Girls Clubs of the YMCA, the American Heart Association, Grand Prairie city planning and zoning, beautification and historical projects. She was named a Worthy Matron in the Order of the Eastern Star. She’s been on advisory and steering committees for Texas house representatives, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Joe Biden in 2021. Angela is the founder of LifeLine for Families, Inc., and as such is a tireless advocate for children and their families in crisis.