By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT
A transitional-living center for housing-challenged individuals is one idea that emerged at the Hays Housing Coalition's meeting Tuesday.
The group, composed of churches and social service agencies, met to discuss the results of its January housing survey. The coalition engaged in the national Point-In-Time initiative meant to identify the scope of homelessness within communities.
Jody Ford, coalition member and director of services for Western Kansas Association on the Concerns of the Disabled, said those without permanent housing could succeed with help. Two months in a transitional-living center could stabilize their lives.
"Help them find a job. Give them budgeting skills," Ford said. "Have them save so they do have money when they move to get utilities turned on."
The potential center would have staff separate from the coalition's members and a board of directors, according to discussions at the meeting. No taxpayer funds would be used. Grants and donations would be used to operate the facility.
Some concerns, however, already have surfaced.
"There's a concern, 'If you build it, they will come,' kind of thing," Ford said. "Well, the homeless are here. They're here now."
Ford said people only need to see housing-challenged people outside Walmart on the weekends to realize a problem exists.
WKACD's housing survey found 21 people were homeless, and four were living with a friend.
Lesley Radius, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hays, said 73 surveys were returned at the Jan. 25 dinner to gather responses. Participants were asked what services they were not getting, and 14 percent said permanent housing, 19 percent said employment and 23 percent said dental care.
The coalition wants to educate the community about the realities confronting home-challenged individuals.
"We're going to have a learning summit and invite leaders in the community, businesses in the community, to the table and talk about ... 18 percent need transportation," Radius said. "What does that mean? How do we address that?"
Those who struggle to find housing have a different story than many people might expect.
"Rural homelessness has a different face on it, at least in my experience," Radius said. "While we might have a few people that are on the streets, most of them are living with friends or family and couch-surfing."
Lack of affordable housing is a driving force behind the issue. Minimum-wage jobholders can struggle to pay rent.
Brandon Wright, lieutenant with the Hays Police Department, said First Call for Help of Ellis County gives his department resources to help transients when First Call is unavailable. Police gave such assistance as food vouchers to 57 people in 2013.
Hays does not have a visible problem with homelessness, Wright said. Police are aware of people who live with friends and move from place to place.
"We really do not have, typically, pockets of people living on the street or living in parks or boxes or anything like that," he said.
Matt "Bucket List" Longwell, Durango, Colo., was panhandling outside Walmart in Hays recently. Longwell, 19, said he was traveling through the area with his dog and a group of "hippies."
Homelessness was circumstance and choice for him, he said.
"At 17, I knew that my dad was going to kick me out on my 18th birthday, because that's just what his dad did to him. And that's the kind of family we were," he said.
Longwell was "flying" across the country, which he described as holding a sign for help, to North Carolina to see his brother.
Those with power in society turn people against the less fortunate, he said.
"We aren't (expletive) up. It's our government," he said. "Maybe not our government, but it's the higher powers. The people influencing us."
Longwell has learned excess is dangerous, and help can come from unexpected sources.
"Abundance is a disease," he said. "I've gotten more $20 kick-downs from convicts that just got out of jail and people that are currently at their lowest than I've ever gotten from the high-class sedan with a cross in the windshield."
The coalition plans to host the survey again in 2015.