The shelter squeeze

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Franklin County’s unemployment rate stood at 6.6 percent in July, down about three points from its peak of two years ago. While the local economy remains sluggish, things are beginning to improve.

And yet, Sunday’s State Journal told the story of another Frankfort, one in which some people have little hope of gainful employment, even of paying for the roof over their heads. Economic recovery aside, local shelter directors told reporter Lindsey Erdody they’re still swamped with requests for assistance.

It’s important to remember that when the shelters overflow, you’re not necessarily talking about huge numbers of individuals. The four shelters in Franklin County provide emergency and/or transitional housing for 30 adults in a county with population just short of 50,000. Housing for the homeless, like public transportation, is a service used by relatively few among us, and some aren’t even residents. But we do have a humanitarian obligation to ease their hardships.

This community saw the need for a more coordinated approach to the problem following news stories in 1984 about a man who froze to death while sleeping under the Capital Avenue Bridge – just five blocks from the marble grandeur of the Kentucky state Capitol. The Access Soup Kitchen and Men’s Shelter on Second Street was founded under the Coalition of Committed Christians through a combination of public and private contributions. It’s for men, 18 and older.

Also available are the Simon House for women who have or expect children, the new Women’s Shelter for those with or without children and the “safe house” set up by the Franklin County Council on Family Abuse for domestic-violence victims.

What’s missing from this picture is anything for intact families who find themselves adrift. Their housing is more complicated because couples with children require more privacy, more expansive accommodations. The National Center on Family Homelessness says families without homes are in especially dire straits. They’re constantly on the move and some sleep in cars or campgrounds while leaving children with relatives.

In fact, the homeless family belies almost everything society expects a family to be. The center says it most typically consists of a mother, in her late 20s, with two children. Many of these mothers have been physically or sexually abused, have mental health issues or suffer poor physical health.

The way the shelter system is organized forces some family members to go separate ways. The U.S. Conference of Mayors says 55 percent of cities it surveyed reported families may have to break up to find shelter.

What homeless families and individuals really need are houses or apartments of their own. But when the only job you can find pays minimum wage, prospects for making rent or mortgage payments are not good. “Minimum wage is not a living wage,” said Andrew Baker, executive director of the Access shelter.

Poverty never disappears, even in boom times. As Jesus, the homeless founder of Christianity, observed, “The poor are with you always.” He called the humble blessed and promised them joy in the hereafter. But that’s no excuse for the more materially blessed to shrug off the plight of the poor in the here and now. Shelters, too, must always be with us.

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