Homeless in the suburbs

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By John Foster

Robert’s story is one that is all too common, even in Oldham County. Amid the half-million-dollar homes and occasional million-dollar horses in a county with a median household income at nearly twice the state’s level, more than 100 families are homeless. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition, Robert — who asked that his last name be withheld — and his family became homeless in the fall. That is, they lacked a consistent nighttimeresidence. As of Jan. 24, there are 108 homeless families in Oldham County, according to a national Housing and Urban Development count of homeless people performed locally by the Good News Shelter Corporation. The count also turned up 60 homeless families in Trimble County and 14 in Henry County.Contrary to stereotypes, Robert and his family members do not sleep on the street. He does not have a substance abuse problem and he has never panhandled. He is a clean-cut man built for work. Rose Boyd, director of the non-profit Good News Shelter, said most residents envision homeless people as single men living on the street, likely with a substance abuse problem or mental illness. But that stereotype only fits a small portion of the people affected by homelessness, she said, a group classified by HUD officials as “chronically homeless.” Chronically homeless people have lived outdoors, in shelters or in a location not meant for human habitation for more than a year or have four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. Most chronically homeless people live in metropolitan areas, Boyd said. The proportion of chronically homeless decreases in rural areas, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a homeless problem in Oldham County, she said. Boyd said most residents don’t believe homeless people exist in Oldham County. True, most homeless people in the area aren’t visible on street corners, instead they reside in peripheral vision, inhabit local motels, sleep in their cars, live in transitional homes like RoseHaven or HOST House or squeeze into homes of family or friends. “They’re not out on the street, but they are here nonetheless,” she said.A combination of factors Reasons vary for why and how people become homeless, Boyd said. The Kentucky Council on Homeless Policy details a rural homeless person as likely a 35-year-old single woman with two children. She attended high school but did not graduate. She is Caucasian and often a victim of domestic violence. Amber Slayton does not stray too far from that description. Last spring, Slayton was on her own for the first time, pregnant, with little work experience, an autistic son and tens of thousands of dollars in debt. In the past, she’s struggled to maintain employment because when one of her sons falls ill, she feels the need to be by his side instead of at work. Other homeless families can relate to Eddie and Amy Buck. Amy Buck said her husband injured his back in 2001 and fell behind on child support for his two eldest daughters. When rent increased, the Buck family could no longer afford living expenses. Layoffs, medical bills for uninsured people, divorce, domestic violence – they all contribute to the rural homeless problem, Boyd said. “There’s so many stories, so many people, so many problems,” Boyd said.‘Bad things happento good people’ Robert’s story begins a couple years ago, in the days he never dreamt he would be counted as homeless. He had a good-paying job at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant. He was providing for his wife and four children. He saved enough money to purchase a decade-old boat his family took to the lake in the summer. His wife volunteered at their children’s school. When rumors of layoffs floated around, Robert transferred to Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant, but with just six years under his belt, he was soon laid off. He didn’t take the buyout money Ford offered. Instead, he banked on the chance of being called back to work. The recall never came, and he found a job working for his apartment complex. His wife helped him with painting and maintenance. “We wasn’t making lots of money, but we was happy,” Robert said. Management at the apartment complex changed and he lost his job in September, he said. Just because he wasn’t making any money didn’t mean the bills stopped coming in. The rent check was still due, the children still needed food and the lights go off if the power company doesn’t get a check. He knew he was responsible for the well-being of his family, but came up with no solutions. No one was hiring, from factories to fast-food restaurants, and without a high school diploma, his wife’s prospects for finding employment were almost non-existent. Unable to pay rent, they were evicted in September. They don’t have family members to help them out, so they had to look other places for help. “It doesn’t mean we’re bad people, but bad things happen to good people,” he said.Chipping away atthe problem Helping the homeless is not a simple proposition. Multiple local agencies chip in, including the Red Cross, the La Grange Ministerial Association, Community Chest, the Oldham County Health Department, RoseHaven and HOST House. Rick Davidson, a minister who heads La Grange Baptist Church’s community care ministry, said he has his hands full trying to help people who find themselves homeless. It takes a measure of discernment to know the best way to help, he said. “From a Biblical perspective, our desire is to help any person that comes through the door, but it’s help with wisdom,” he said. If someone visits the church in need of immediate help, with hungry kids and no place to sleep that night, Davidson offers assistance. But the help doesn’t end with solving the immediate crisis. Davidson is looking to solve deeper issues that push families into homelessness. Davidson requires a meeting with the adults to discuss their struggles. For those with plans to take advantage of a church’s kindness, or those seeking a quick handout, the required meeting often stops them in their tracks. By coordinating with other church leaders in the La Grange Ministerial Association to find out who has received assistance, Davidson and others prevent individuals from taking advantage. Davidson wants to discuss what brings families to the point of homelessness — is it poor money management? A drug or alcohol addiction? And if family relationships are strained, is it possible to reconcile those relationships and provide a place to live? He said he tries to find the tools people need to get their lives back on track, and hopefully bring them closer to Jesus. The church was not established as a welfare agent. “It’s there to be an agent to change their life,” Davidson said.Helping or enabling Dee Milburn struggles between helping and enabling homeless people. Milburn manages the Best Western Ashbury Inn in La Grange. In the past, he’d house every client Good News Shelters sent his way through the KHC’s Safe Havens program. Then he realized some residents sold drugs out of his motel, he said. Boyd said for most services Good News provides, they require a drug test and background check, but KHC’s short-term Safe Havens program operates under loose guidelines, restricting only registered sex offenders and people with a conviction for drug trafficking on government property. Boyd said her organization hasn’t had a problem with clients engaging in criminal activity for more than a year. Meanwhile, Milburn said he is working to repair his motel’s reputation. He welcomes fewer families in need, and screens prospective residents carefully. If a motorist breaks down on Interstate 71 or the La Grange Ministerial Association refers a family for immediate assistance, he will still let them in. “We’re not gonna let somebody freeze to death or starve to death,” Williams said. But if residents don’t show signs of an attempt to better their lives, he sends them packing, telling them, “If you don’t want to help yourself, just go.” KHC is a self-supporting branch of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet.Charla Jackson Peter, communications director for the KHC said if officials determine a recipient is abusing the system – such as in the case Milburn described – the recipient’s funding is denied. “People have to want to make changes, they have to want to turn their life around,” Peter said. Eradicating rural homelessness is complicated, she said. Homeless people suffering from mental illness have different needs than those struggling with substance abuse, who have different needs than those with poor money management habits who are likely to be caught up in predatory lending. Much of the solution is in prevention, including reform in the lending industry, she said. Prevention usually comes in the form of education about home loans, budgeting and scams targeted toward senior citizens. It takes cooperation among many agencies to accomplish this sort of education. “It really takes a lot of partnerships and resources in each community to solve a lot of these issues,” Peter said. After a family becomes homeless, the best resource they can receive is accountability and mentoring, she said.She said even if people want to turn their life around, it is difficult. She said it is tough enough for most people to keep a New Year’s resolution to exercise, let alone shake a drug addiction or learn self-control with their money. “A lot of people have a lot of wonderful intentions, they just don’t understand how much work it actually is,” she said. If someone is there to mentor them and keep them accountable, the homeless have a greater chance of making those needed changes, she said. She also said there needs to be more affordable housing in Kentucky, a sentiment Boyd and Good News Shelter Assistant Director Tamara Alexander echo. Alexander said an emergency shelter is also needed. “If we built an emergency shelter today, we could have it filled by this weekend, she said.The safety net There’s just not enough of a safety net for people who find themselves homeless, Boyd said. But the safety net has caught some. Over the last seven years Good News Shelter has given 40 homeless people a place to live in one of their eight apartments in La Grange and Bedford and currently manages funds going to 34 families through the KHC. The safety net caught Slayton, who lives in one of Good News Shelter’s apartments in La Grange and works at Dairy Queen. Slayton said her employer is understanding when her son is ill and she has to miss work. She’s paid off almost all of her $16,000 debt in the past year and has hired a lawyer to tackle her medical bills. Her goal is to own a home where her children can play in their own backyard. She said without the assistance of an agency like Good News, she never would have been able to consider having her own home. But she’s eager to get off the assistance. “I want to hurry up and get out so someone else can get the help they need,” she said. She said the prospect of striking out on her own is scary. But she is more confident now. She has learned how to budget, and how to say “no” to her son when he wants a toy every time they visit Wal-Mart. She said she is no longer dependent on her husband. “I depend on myself now,” she said. And the safety net has helped Robert, although he is not back on his feet yet. In October, Robert swallowed his pride and asked Good News Shelter Corporation for help. “The last thing I want to do is say, ‘I need help getting food for my kids,” he said. He did get that help. Through Good News Shelter Corporation he was able to secure a voucher from the KHC Safe Havens program to help pay for a house in Ballardsville. The housing vouchers are only available for a year, but he hopes to find a job and discontinue use of government assistance much sooner so someone else can be helped. He has earned his commercial driver’s license and hopes to gain a job in local trucking soon. He has submitted more than 200 applications to CareerBuilder.com, he said. He thought getting another job would be easy. Instead, “it seems like nothing comes easy for us,” he said. “That’s okay, we’ll just keep working hard at it.”

E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com