Homelessness increasing in Butler County

The word “homelessness” creates an uneasy feeling for most people. It’s not a topic we want to think about or discuss.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless, including more than 1.6 million children. These families are hidden from our view. They move frequently, and many are doubled-up in overcrowded apartments  or houses with relatives or friends. Others sleep in cars and campgrounds.  Homelessness increases the likelihood families will separate or dissolve.
Leadership Butler hosted an educational forum Thursday evening in Augusta to show that homelessness no longer has a stereotypical face.  
Probably the most common stereotype of  homeless people is they are drug and alcohol addicts — with good reason. That has been the single largest cause of homelessness - but that and other causes, such as domestic violence, mental illness and post-traumatic stress, are being edged out by job loss, underemployment and foreclosures.  
The current down turn in the economy has many Americans barely getting by financially. Many are underemployed at wages that can’t sustain them. Layoffs and job cuts leave individuals and families in desperate circumstances. Unemployment benefits and savings run out, leaving people homeless who never thought it could happen to them.  By no fault of their own, they are on the streets.
That is the case for 75 percent of the people helped this past year by the Butler Homeless Initiative.
While many may falsely assume Butler County has no problem with homelessness, Tuesday night’s forum addressed the fact there are many homeless in the area.
 Suzie Locke, Leadership Butler Alumni chair and board member, was the moderator for the forum and panel members were:
 • Holly Francis - longtime educator, current USD 402 Augusta assistant superintendent and homeless liaison with the school district.
• Teresa Henderson - R.N./sonographer for the Pregnancy & Family Resource Center, started Hospice Care of Kansas in Butler County, worked with New Jerusalem Mission in Harvey County, and with the Harvey County Homeless Shelter.
• Melody Gault - program manager for the Butler County Foster Grandparent and RSVP Volunteer Projects.  She began tenure with the Department on Aging in 2004 managing the RSVP federal grant.  She successfully competed for the Foster Grandparent grant and currently manages both projects. She is the president of the Butler Homeless Initiative.
Locke’s first question to the panel was “What is your perspective of homelessness in Butler County?”
Gault responded with statistics on people served the past year through HUD’s Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) Program.  She shared that 48 households, 62 adults, 28 children, 13 single women  and eight single mothers were helped.
“Twelve of those people were on fixed incomes and 35 were working...we’re seeing people with financial hardships, loss of jobs, medical catastrophes, families with children.  Most of them are homeless through no fault of their own.”
Henderson stated, “I’ve seen people with revoked licenses who can’t get to work.  Single mothers who just can’t make it and pregnant women living out of cars,” she continued. “Homelessness in Butler County is more of a problem than what is seen on the surface.”  
She also shared many of the homeless camp at the lake and aren’t as visible.
Francis explained school counselors are the first responders when it comes to homeless children at school.
“We know that there are more than we are aware of,” she said. “Those who camp at the lakes aren’t always reported and some are living in motels.  Others are staying with relatives - many times if they’re not living under a bridge, we don’t think of them as homeless. There are certain things we look for to determine the situation.”
Available services and hope for more
The second question was What kind of work does your organization do or services do you provide to the homeless or under privileged populations?
Gault explained the ESG grant provided some money for rapid rehousing, but that there is a lot more need than what meets the  HUD definition of homelessness.
“We want to get people in their own homes.  We want them working with case workers, establish goals and get them to the right resources.  We are still looking for a suitable place for a transitional home,” Gault said.
She advised if there is no money for food or rent, then all a homeless person can think about is taking care of this moment - food for today.  They are unable to think about the future.
“A transitional home can give them 3-4 months of stability and they are not worrying every minute of the day about food,” she said. “It’s not from one crisis to the next.”
Gault touched on the resistance of many people to the transition home.  
“We don’t want to be where we’re not wanted,” she said. “We don’t want to be where people don’t want us.  We need a location.”  
She explained many people hang onto their stereotypical views of the homeless and don’t understand that they are average people who simply need work and a new start. Many of them have simply made bad choices. Because they don’t have vehicles and usually have to walk to seek resources or jobs, the transition home needs to be in town and not outside the city limits.
Henderson added, “I have found that most of them just don’t know how to plan, as they are always in the survival mode.”
She outlined the many services provided by the Pregnancy & Family Resource Centers, one in El Dorado and one in Augusta.  The centers provide free pregnancy tests, free sonograms, parenting classes, and first aid courses.  Mothers completing classes can earn baby bucks that can be spent on necessities.
“They are discipled in Christianity and faith and are learning practical skills,” she said.
Francis explained the school district has guidelines for determining who is homeless and that counselors, teachers and administrators look for clues and indicators.  
“The district provides free breakfasts and lunches, and food packs for weekends,” she said. “There are educational opportunities and we do provide transportation services, as well. If a student’s living arrangements change, we want to provide as much stability as possible so we will transport them to the school they attended prior to the change.”
Francis also mentioned school supplies are provided, field trip costs are covered and materials for ACT preparation for the older students.
“Bright Futures has had great success so far.  All types of services have been provided.  I encourage you to find their Facebook page and find out about it.”
What can the citizens of Butler County do to be a part of a solution?
Gault would like to see the community become more involved.
“A mentoring program would be good.  If the community would rally around those who are suffering - we could make a difference.  It really does take a village,” she said. “Many of them do have skills that are worthy.  The practical side is to provide a place for someone to move into...donations, of course, help and mentoring.”
Henderson agreed.  “Relationships and earning trust is key.  Churches can help provide staples, we all can take responsibility.  My experience has been amazing...We must know our resources and networking is very important, too.”
She spoke of Watered Gardens, as successful program in Joplin, Mo., with the end goal of replacing government welfare programs with local community cooperation by educating and providing resources.  
“They don’t partner with anyone who promotes entitlement - they want to shift from that type of thinking - that everyone works for everything creating worth and value,” she said.
Francis also stated providing resources is priority, as well as helping unemployed find jobs.
“We can help them find a job and get back on their feet,” she said. “We can teach them finances. Our job is to educate the community about homelessness.  We probably could do a better job in  defining what homeless is...donations of money, school supplies, warm winter clothing, Christmas gifts, and volunteering are all ways people can help.”
In closing the three women encouraged others to get involved.
“We need a transition home. Prayers are needed that a location happens...We are faith-based and take a wholistic approach. We want to give them the tools they need to become successful and independent,” Gault added. “This dialogue is perfect.  We need to talk about it and share concerns.  We can find a solution together.”
“Whatever the community can do to provide support to the schools.  In Augusta, feel free to contact me, the counselors and administrators,” Francis stated.
Henderson added, “Prayers are key. Get involved.  Be aware of the resources.  We all need to acknowledge the problem. We want productive citizens.  No one wants to take care of them forever - we need to get them headed where they need to be...We need to break the cycle and help them succeed.”
Harboring disdain for the homeless or ignoring the issue and considering it to be a public-safety problem to be managed, isn’t working.  It is, in fact, something far more challenging: A public health crisis that worsens by the day.

To learn more about the homelessness issue in Butler County or to help, go to:
Butler Homeless Initiative: http://www.butlerhomelessinitiative.org/ or call 316-321-1454.
Pregnancy & Family Resource Centers: http://hope4kansas.com/parenting/ or call 316-322-0070.
Holly Francis at USD 402: http://www.usd402.com/ or call 316-775-5484.
Find Bright Futures of Augusta on Facebook.

Did you know? -

One in four baby boomers has no savings and no children, according to U.S. Census data, meaning they’ll enter their retirement years without a financial safety net. More than 1 million schoolchildren are technically homeless and becoming accustomed at an early age to living in poverty.

Fact: The government does not help as much as you think. There is enough public rental assistance to help about one out of every four extremely low-income households. Those who do not receive help are on multi-year waiting lists, according to HUD.