Friday, December 22, 2006

Council recommends transitional housing for the homeless

Council proposes housing to end chronic homelessness
Many who lack shelter also need medical help, social care
Alford, Roger. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 9, 2006, pg. D4.

FRANKFORT -- One man smells of body odor and has the unkempt look of a person who spends both day and night on the street. Another is a clean-shaven elderly gentleman. Some are single mothers with children.

Jennifer Weaver has watched day after day as an assortment of homeless people make their way into the shelter she oversees in Hazard.

"It's quite heartbreaking," Weaver said. "A lot of the folks who we see have had a lot of pain in their lives. I think we've seen about everything: mothers and fathers with children, single parents, children of all ages, elderly people."

The Kentucky Council on Homeless Policy is proposing a plan to wipe out chronic homelessness in the state over the next 10 years. Nearly 2,500 of Kentucky's estimated 19,000 homeless people each year are chronically homeless, meaning they sleep in a place not meant for human habitation or in a shelter.

In a report to be unveiled today in Frankfort, the council recommends that the state build more housing specifically for the homeless: 1,000 transition homes and 2,400 permanent dwellings.

"In Kentucky, there is an insufficient supply of all types of safe, decent and affordable housing," the Council on Homeless Policy said in the report.Gov. Ernie Fletcher called on the council, which is made up of representatives of government and non-profit groups who work with homeless issues, to develop recommendations to end chronic homelessness within 10 years.

The council says the state should help arrange housing for people being released from prisons, drug and alcohol treatment centers and foster care.

"One of the fastest-growing segments of the adult homeless population is the number of young adults who are turning 18 and leaving the foster care system," the council said in the report.

"Youth in foster care often have considerable health and mental health problems. Nearly one-third have physical or emotional difficulties and are likely to have complex health needs resulting from past neglect or abuse."

Council members also recommended that the state focus attention on the most common problems that lead to homelessness: mental illness, substance abuse, physical disabilities and domestic violence.

In their report, members of the council recommended building and operating the transitional housing with some $27 million from the Kentucky Housing Corp., the Department of Corrections and the Governor's Office for Local Development.

They offered no price tag or specific funding source for the proposed permanent housing, other than to say the money would come from federal, state and local philanthropic sources.

Gerry Roll, executive director of Hazard-Perry County Community Ministries, said the need is tremendous and the solution is more complicated than just providing places for the homeless to live. Nearly everyone who needs housing also needs medical care and social care, she said.

Her organization serves about 1,000 people each year in the largely rural county in Eastern Kentucky. Not all of them meet the homeless stereotype of people in alleys with all their possessions in shopping carts.

"If you are earning minimum wage in this country anywhere, you cannot afford fair-market rent," Roll said. "Two minimum-wage earners may be able to afford safe, decent housing. But if you have children and need a two-bedroom, they can't. Especially if you need child care. That's true anywhere, not just in Eastern Kentucky."

A worker in Kentucky, according to the council report, must earn $10.23 an hour to afford the state average fair-market rent of $532 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

"A minimum-wage earner can afford monthly rent of no more than $268," the report said. "In Kentucky, a worker earning the minimum wage must work 79 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the area's fair-market rent."

The council also noted in its report that Kentucky has "an insufficient supply of safe, decent and affordable housing."

The Rev. John Rausch, a Catholic priest with the Lexington Diocese, said the working poor too often are forced to live in dilapidated housing, whether tarpaper shacks or rusty old mobile homes.

"The American dream is to own your own home," he said. "So many times people will take a short cut by going for repo mobile homes, things that don't really hold up even though they satisfy the housing need for the moment."

Rausch said the homeless problem isn't limited to urban areas.

"Rural homelessness is not so easy to observe," he said. "It may be invisible. You don't find people sleeping under bridges like you do in an urban area."

Rausch said one man in Powell County lives in a rusty old trailer, vintage 1960s, that could be pulled behind a pickup truck. He has shelter, Rausch said, but he doesn't have a home.

Rausch praised the council for its recommendations on behalf of the homeless.

"Because they don't have wealth, they have no power," he said. "Because they have no power, they have no voice. But everyone deserves a decent place to live."


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