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Homelessness: What can our community do differently?

Consider these two stories. A man shows up at a local hotel, asking for a room for the night. When asked to pay, he has no cash and no credit card because someone stole his wallet. He had hoped that the hotel could let him stay for free at least for one night. The hotel clerk, who is a “go the extra mile” kind of person, begins the difficult process of looking for emergency housing for someone who is temporarily homeless. A woman is discharged from our local jail after going to court on a marijuana possession charge. As she is leaving, a jail staff member asks her where she will be living. She answers honestly that she has nowhere safe to go. The kind staff member stops her, and begins the same challenging process of searching for an emergency housing option with her.

Stories like these are frequent realities in Boyle County. To some people, they may sound more like New York City, or Lexington, or Louisville stories. But, they are ours as well. Once you own the fact that this happens in our community, there are two common reactions to these narratives. The first is to simply question what these folks did to get to this point. Were they using drugs? Did they alienate their family in some way, so that they could not turn to them for help? Did they spend their money on the wrong things? Did they refuse to look for a job? Some, or all of these things could be true, but not necessarily.
Even so, a second way to look at these stories – particularly when a community sees trends of these situations over time – is to also ask a systemic question: What could the community do differently to prevent this, or at least to respond more effectively? Asking that question does not take away the individual’s responsibility to do some things differently. It does help to change the environment to allow for more positive options for the individuals.

Communities whose citizens ask and answer the second question are those who build in safety nets of meeting basic needs as part of resiliency services that save lives and save money in the long run. Emergency housing is one of those safety nets, and Boyle County needs it. It’s needed for people leaving jail and prison, people leaving substance use disorder treatment programs, people who are chronically mentally ill with poor social supports, people whose income simply is not enough to cover basic needs, and yes, people who have made bad choices and need help to turn their lives around.

Roger Fox, of Shepherds House, says that since the Shepherds House Boyle/Mercer Treatment Program began as an alternative to incarceration in February 2017, approximately 60% of their clients have experienced serious housing instability after being released from incarceration. Christy Whitsell, New Vista Community Mental Health Center Danville Office Director, reports short-term housing is often needed by clients with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Chad Holderman, Boyle County Deputy Jailer, recently stated that the jail sees a “huge need” for a short-term shelter, and that particularly in the winter months, some people actually try to be put in jail just to get a roof over their heads.

Months ago, a group of members of Boyle ASAP decided it was time to address the lack of short-term emergency housing. Addiction-related situations initially brought it to the attention of the group, but all of the other contributing factors began to emerge pretty quickly. Since the pandemic began, all indications are that the problems have only deepened.

The counterpoint to the two beginning stories, then, is a small shelter, with a strong case management and referral component, which will link people to resources to address their related problems. The group has labelled it as a “Landing and Launching Center”. The consensus is that the “launching” part is critical to lasting change. The group has also agreed that the “landing” part – providing the basic need of shelter – should be part of who we are in Boyle County. We are a compassionate and resourceful community. We have solved other problems. We can do better. We can change these stories.

If readers would like to get involved, please contact Roger Fox at rogerfox@shepherdshouseinc.com, or Kathy Miles at kathy.miles@centre.edu.

Kathy L. Miles, Coordinator
Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy, Inc.