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Homeless: The problem is small but real in Lawrence County

Agencies working together for solutions

 

A few years ago Bill Schearer found himself in a situation no one would wish to be in: He was homeless.

“I’ve made some mistakes,” Schearer admitted.

Through friends, Schearer found his way to Lawrence County and, eventually, to the City Welfare Mission Shelter.

“I stayed three weeks,” he said. But Schearer was intent on pulling himself up by his bootstraps and he found work as a cook at an area restaurant.

Life began to improve.

These days Schearer is on the other side of the coin, so to speak, and is helping others who are in the situation he once was in: He is the caretaker for the Mission’s shelter. Lawrence County’s homeless population, though not large, does exist. And it is at odds with the Lawrence County ideal of family members taking care of each other and neighbors helping neighbors.

 

The numbers

Cindy Anderson, community development director for the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization, said the number of homeless people in the county is really a fluid number that changes frequently. Typically her agency sees about 33-35 cases a year, both individuals and families.

“One year we had 35 cases and 28 of them were families but the next year we had 27 single men,” Anderson said.

Schearer said he sees new people at the shelter every week.

“I probably see a dozen new ones,” he said. “Some are from the Tri-State area; it just depends. We get a few who are passing through. We had 14 people here one day.”

Anderson said the homeless tend to fall into two broad camps. The first are those who have had a circumstance (loss of a job or house, for instance) and have absolutely no place to live and wind up literally on the streets. CAO gets federal grant monies to help them help themselves.

The second camp are the “couch-surfers,” people who float from place to place, often staying with a succession of family members and friends for short periods of time but have no permanent home of their own.

Anderson said it’s not uncommon for the CAO to get as many as 200 requests from people who fall into this category. They are helped when funding is available and when they have exhausted their possibilities for family or friend assistance.

 

The reasons

The reasons why people are homeless are many and varied.

“Drugs are a huge problem,” Anderson said.

Drug abuse and alcoholism often lead to problems within families, causing the substance abuser to leave home and then they sometimes wind up on the streets. The CAO requires drug testing for those who seek help.

The Rev. Jeff Cremeans, City Mission Director, said some of the homeless people staying at the City Mission Shelter are transient men, but he does see families, too.

“We’ve had families staying with young children, even,” Cremeans said. “The economy has changed a lot of things. People are homeless.”

Schearer said he has taken in pregnant women with children, even battered women who needed a place to stay.

Cremeans said families who stay at the shelter are there for a variety reasons.

“Lost jobs, family disruption and they don’t have anywhere else to go. Maybe the place they were in is not livable anymore,” Cremeans said.

 

The assistance

Those who get CAO help are given a service plan that is meant to address all their needs — housing, food, education, substance abuse, etc. — to ensure they aren’t given help for just a day but helped to the point they are less likely to face homelessness again.

Anderson said there is no simple solution to helping the homeless and each person who comes to that organization seeking assistance is handled on a case-by-case basis.

The client is given not only housing assistance in some form but also assistance with whatever problem caused them to wind up on the street in the first place.

Clients with mental health and substance abuse issues, for example, are referred to additional agencies for counseling; those who lack education are referred to the Workforce Development Resource Center for assistance in getting a general equivalence diploma and then, later, a job.

The CAO’s Shelter and Care program typically serves nine people a year. These are people who have long-term problems that will take long-term supervision, such as people with mental health issues.

“Part of the requirement under the grant (used to operate the program) is that the cause of homelessness must be addressed,” Anderson explained.

The City Mission Shelter doors are open for the homeless individual or family. Although it is meant to be a temporary fix, Cremeans said the length of stay depends on the situation.

“We take it a day at a time,” Cremeans said. “If they’re helping themselves, we don’t care to help them.”

Schearer agreed.

“If we see that they’re trying to help themselves,” he said. “No matter how bad it is, really the only person who can really help you is you.”

The city mission not only helps with its overnight shelter, but also provides clothing, and, once the family or person finds a new place to live, furnishings.

Those who stay in the shelter get breakfast in the mornings; anyone who shows up at the church gets fed lunch at noon on weekdays.

 

The unfortunate truth

While most homeless people are not involved in criminal activity, it is not uncommon to see on police blotters, sheriff’s reports and even criminal indictments a notation that a suspect or witness is homeless.

 

Unusual

circumstances

Anderson recalled one man who chose not to go the traditional route to getting help.

“We had one guy who called us and he was living in a tent out in the woods,” Anderson said. “He told us he didn’t want to move to town. He didn’t want a house but he did need some warm clothes because it was getting cold. He wanted to stay in his tent. We couldn’t help him but we referred him to places that give away clothes.”

 

Compassion

Everyone involved stressed that the homeless should not be looked down on even if their circumstances are not what anyone would wish.

“They’re human beings like the rest of us,” Anderson agreed. “We could all be on the other side of that desk any given day and that’s what we tell them when they come in.”