Officials weigh options to help homeless population

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

If everything goes according to plan, and funding can be put into place, Sanford may build a shelter or day center to aid the local homeless population — a possibility raised during a local meeting Wednesday.

More than 30 representatives of Sanford and Lee County governments, nonprofits and churches gathered at the city’s municipal building Wednesday morning to network and start the ball rolling on discussions surrounding what kind of services the area needs and how they would be best funded and operated.

Karen Kennedy, the City of Sanford’s Neighborhood Development Division administrator, said there aren’t enough local funds to build a shelter or a day center — whichever providers decide would be more helpful — but that a combination of local money, private donations and grant funding should be enough to build one.

Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive, who was a driving force behind Family Promise, a local day center that helps homeless families with education, employment and housing, said she’s excited to see the issue getting more attention.

“This group, the homeless, were an invisible group for so long until finally and suddenly — no, gradually — our community began helping more and more,” she said.

Last week, providers around Lee County conducted a widespread count of the local homeless population for the first time in recent memory. Kenosha Davenport, executive director of HAVEN, which led the effort, said Wednesday she hasn’t gotten all the reports back yet, but she previously said she was expecting dozens to be reported.

Warren Wooten, public sector management professional with the Raleigh-based Wooten Company, helped Kennedy conduct Wednesday’s meeting. He said he’s been working with Sanford for about seven years on various projects and that the idea for the city to build a shelter has been proposed often. But he said simply talking about services offered, or how to pay for those services, won’t solve anything in the long run.

“If we’re talking about ending homelessness, we have to talk about the causes and sources of homelessness,” he said. “It’s fine to talk about patches and fixes, but we have to talk about the causes.”

So attendees listed everything from mental health and substance abuse issues to the economy, domestic violence and an inability to reintegrate into civilian life after leaving prison or the military.

Ethel King, a property manager with the Sanford Housing Authority, also said she’s heard of people who pay rent to a homeowner without realizing that person isn’t paying the mortgage. They’ll have done everything they need to do, she said, but will suddenly become homeless when the bank shows up to take the property.

Johnnye Waller, director of student resources for Lee County Schools, said that children are often the biggest losers in a homeless family because domestic instability can hamper academic success, especially if a child changes schools frequently. She said the schools try to keep students in their original schools, but that it’s not always possible.

She said the district is now dealing with about 130 children in inadequate housing situations — which can mean homeless, living in a motel or living temporarily with relatives — which is down from about 230 last year and about 270 right after the tornado in April of 2011. The district did get a $30,000 grant to help these students, she said, but it can only go toward educational purchases like school uniforms and tutors.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to housing,” she said. “Many of these parents are staying in a motel and can’t pay the bills. I’m working with one mother right now who’s living in one room with three children.”

Olive asked how anyone in the public or private sector is supposed to help homeless people because since the state has cut funding, there’s never been enough local money, and on top of all of that, jobs remain few and far between.

“The reality keeps getting in the way,” she said.

“I know,” Wooten replied, earning a round of exasperated laughter from the room. “In the planning field, we call that a wicked problem. ... I tell you all these ideas and solutions, and then I tell you there’s no funding. I know. Sorry.”

But he and Kennedy said they think there just may be enough grant money out there to make it feasible for the city to help build a shelter or day center — but that even having the money won’t guarantee that it happens.

“The problem is if you build it, they might not come,” Kennedy said. “Or they come, and no one’s there to take the lead and run the thing.”

She said that even if the city helps with the building, they’ll want a nonprofit to handle the daily operations of the shelter.

Anyone who wants to volunteer, she said, should get in touch with her.