Homelessness task force holds first meeting; reports on warming center

Published 2:57 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The newly formed Boyle County Homelessness Task Force had their first meeting on Jan. 23, where they discussed actionable ways to help the local homeless population.

The Boyle County Fiscal Court formed the task force in late 2023. It’s made up of local volunteers, including from organizations and ministries that encounter and/or help the homeless. Magistrate Steve Sleeper had the idea and is head of the group.

The task force’s purpose is to address the root causes of homelessness in Boyle County and find meaningful solutions to homelessness. At their first meeting, members discussed the causes of homelessness, ideas on how to address the problem locally, first steps on what to do, etc.

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Task force member Jenny Clark with the Family Resource Center at Danville Schools was elected as recording secretary of the group.

One thing the group will be doing right away is conducting a count on how many homeless people are in Boyle County on a given night. They will be participating in the K-Count, which is an annual count of homeless people that every county in the country can do on a designated night.

The count helps identify how many people need services. If there’s ever federal grants available to help people who need housing, money usually goes to communities with higher numbers of homeless people.

This year’s count is happening on January 31. Some members of the task force and other volunteers will be conducting the count, going out in teams to homeless encampments. They will meet at the Boyle County Health Department at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday for training, delegation and sending out. They will be using an app called “Counting Us.”

Warming center

Some task force members had helped operate a warming center during the recent below-freezing weather days. The center was at Centenary Methodist Church in Danville. It remained open 24 hours for nine days from Jan. 14 to Jan. 22.

Operators determined that if temperatures didn’t get above 32 degrees, the center needed to be open 24 hours. It had food, cots, and two volunteers present at all times. Sleeper said there were 40 to 50 volunteers who filled all of the time slots, and more than enough food was donated.

The center had 10 overnight guests, some staying for the whole nine days. Sleeper said there were additional guests who stayed for a few hours, but then went back out.

Gary Chidester, who helped operate the center and is a member of the task force, said that the center essentially became a homeless shelter by day 3 or 4. He said some of the homeless who were there only wanted to be warm and did not want any other help, but some of them did want further help.

The group discussed possible reasons for why more homeless people did not come to the center. Some possible reasons they mentioned were that pets weren’t allowed. However, the Humane Society offered an option to vaccinate people’s pets or have them stay at the animal shelter.

Others could have been suspicious of the center, or some could’ve had warrants out for their arrest. Task Force member Stacie Ford, who takes donations to bring supplies directly to the homeless, said many were afraid to leave their belongings.

“The theft among the homeless people is a real thing, because that’s why they didn’t go [to the center]” Ford said. “There’s no way someone who collects something over a two-year period is going to leave all they own to go stay the night, just so someone can rob them.”

Ford said she bought propane to many homeless people so they could keep warm. She also made sure people had warm enough sleeping bags and blankets.

Causes of homelessness

The group talked about different reasons people become homeless. Members said that many different events or circumstances can cause someone to become homeless, and circumstances differ widely for each person.

However, members agreed that the main cause of homelessness is a lack of access to affordable housing. They mentioned the book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem” by Aldern and Colburn, as well as a recent local homelessness study by Centre College students that came to the same conclusion.

Several people said rent and house prices are inflated and continue to increase both in Danville and across the country.

Some causes of homelessness that members mentioned are below:

• Having a criminal record makes it more difficult to find a job, and having evictions makes it more difficult to rent.

• Several members said they know homeless people who have jobs, but can’t afford housing or can’t get housing due to past evictions.

• Mental illness can cause someone to lose a job, or to not understand the need to pay rent, or to have the ability to manage finances, etc.

• Some people become homeless when their landlord won’t fix a problem with their rental property, like a mold or pest infestation.

• Some landlords won’t accept all forms of income to qualify as income when people apply to rent. For example, some won’t recognize disability checks or other government welfare-type income as actual income on rental applications. Therefore, people wouldn’t qualify to rent even if they make enough money.

• Some who could be living paycheck to paycheck may be one or two events away from becoming homeless. Clark said a car accident, medical emergency, or other disasters can plunge someone into debt and possibly cause them to not be able to pay housing costs.

• Some people who make just above certain income thresholds don’t qualify for social services, like food stamps or rental assistance. Those people still may not be able to make ends meet, and are more at risk of becoming homeless.

• Unhoused people who struggle with substance abuse can have trouble staying in treatment. But when they do successfully complete a treatment program, some have nowhere to go and end up back on the street.

Task Force member James Hunn, who coordinates the re-entry program at the jail, said that people in recovery don’t succeed if they don’t have their basic needs met, or don’t have a reliable place to live.

Solution ideas, first steps

Boyle County does not currently have a homeless shelter. While there is a need in the county to have somewhere that the homeless can stay, some members of the task force said a homeless shelter might not be feasible for a community of Danville’s size.

Shelters need hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to operate, and some shelters in similar communities have closed from a lack of funds. Recent plans by the Danville Housing Authority for a homeless shelter fell through, and no other organization has made any commitment to start one.

Aside from a homeless shelter, attendees came up with other actionable ideas on how locals can work together to address the problem. Some are as follows:

• Members agreed that a helpful thing for homeless people would be to have one central location for homeless services, either a nonprofit or a government social worker employee. Several members highlighted a need for someone to provide case management, being able to help individuals fix their unique situations.

• Since a location or person would take time to find, they suggested putting together a list of all homeless resources in the county. This would include all ministries and organizations that give food, supplies, and other services to the homeless. The homeless must go to many different places to get what they need; but having a list of places might take out some guess work.

• Task Force member Debbie Thurnell coordinates several homeless outreach programs at St. Peter and Paul Church, including serving food, getting people free showers, getting people free laundry services, and other things. She suggested that as a first step toward having a shelter, the community should have a day center for the homeless, where they can do laundry and shower.

• Thurnell also suggested a pallet shelter, which is a living community that provides temporary housing as a transitional move to permanent housing. Those shelters also provide case management. Another idea was a community of tiny houses.

• Task force member Angie Muncy, who’s director of Boyle County Environmental Services, had attended a state workshop where she got the idea of the county starting a camping area for the homeless. She handed out drawings of what it could look like.

There would be a Conex container with outdoor access rooms that are five feet wide. There would be porta potties, outdoor showers, trash cans, picnic tables, and a fire pit.

• One person mentioned that the city and county should work together on whatever efforts happen or may happen. A city or county employee could start writing grant applications for things to help the homeless, like funds for a building, a permanent employee to handle case management and homeless services, etc.

The task force will be meeting every two weeks on Tuesdays. The next meeting will be Feb. 6 at 5:30 p.m. at the Boyle County Extension office.

To be added to the email list and be notified of when and where meetings take place, people can email Sleeper at ssleeperchaplain@gmail.com.

A list of the task force members and/or people who attended the meeting are as follows:

• Steve Sleeper – retired chaplain from Ephraim McDowell Health.

• Amanda Cooke – with Arbor Youth Services, a shelter in Lexington for minors and young adults.

• Jenny Clark – with the Family Resource Center at Danville Schools.

• Amy Anness – with the syringe exchange program at the Boyle County Health Department.

• Stacie Ford – citizen volunteer who works directly with the homeless, taking donations to bring supplies to encampments.

• Jordan Burchfield – case manager at the Salvation Army.

• Sue Andres – citizen volunteer who has worked at homeless shelters, and has a master’s in social work.

• Terry Dunn – community outreach coordinator at Boyle County EMS, who sometimes encounters homeless individuals.

• Jason Dean – administrator with Ephraim McDowell Health.

• Libby Mays – works in community engagement at Ephraim McDowell Health.

• Misty Rice – health educator and works with nurses at Ephraim McDowell.

• Debbie Thurnell – coordinates multiple homeless outreach programs at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, including the Soups on Us ministry.

• Gary Chidester – director of discipleship at the Isaiah House.

• James Hunn – reentry program coordinator at the Boyle County Detention Center, also with ASAP and the Hope Network.

• Angela Muncy – with Boyle County Environmental Services, sometimes encountering the homeless; also served 12 years in the Red Cross.

• Kathy Miles – coordinator of Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy.

• Other members who weren’t in attendance: Ashley Dowell, Tonya Buchanan, Gina Evergreen, Monica Gilbert, Terri Carter, Charlotte Duff.