By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
For one hour, Lee Ann Spencer was thrust into poverty.
She was given a pretend identity, limited resources of money, food and transportation, a pretend husband who had been laid off from his job, and three pretend children. She was told to work with them to figure out how to survive.
It wasn’t enough time, she said, to truly understand those who live in such situations every day, but it was a start.
“In real life, I work for a charity and we are on the front line, so we see people just like the ones we have been assigned to play in this exercise,” said Spencer, who works at the Labette County Emergency Assistance Center in Parsons.
Spencer was one of 155 people from Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma who gathered this week for a three-day summit in Pittsburg to put the spotlight on homelessness. The summit included the group role-playing exercise in which Spencer participated.
“One of our founding tenets is to raise awareness and break down stereotypes,” said Doug Wallace, with the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, which headed up the event. “When I grew up, I thought about a guy on a park bench who was scary looking, a bum, lazy.
“But homelessness has many different faces. Some go to work every day. Some have families. I know a guy who lived in the trees in a tent who got up every morning at 6 a.m. and went to day labor at a full-time job.”
At the coalition’s last count, more than 200 homeless individuals in Southeast Kansas were employed full time.
A “point in time” count conducted by the state coalition in January found that since 2011, homelessness in Crawford County has tripled. In the seven counties of Southeast Kansas, it has doubled, said Becky Gray of SEK-CAP Inc., which joined with the coalition to be the host of the three-day summit.
Homelessness is difficult to count in absolutes, she said, “because there also is a subset of people who are ‘doubled up,’ or living with other families.”
“These people are considered by HUD to be ‘precariously housed,’ meaning they could become truly unsheltered at any moment,” she said. “This is what rural homelessness looks like.”
The count found that 60 percent of homeless individuals in Southeast Kansas were women, and of that number almost half reported they were pregnant. More than one out of every three, or 36 percent, were children.
“Of the seven-county area, Crawford County had the most homeless people, and that was followed by Labette and Montgomery counties,” Gray said.
About one-quarter of those counted were employed, and they worked an average of 24 hours a week. About 25 percent said loss of employment led to their homelessness. The top reported contributing factors for homelessness were loss of employment, a lack of affordable housing, eviction and medical expenses.
In Missouri, the Homeless Coalition of Jasper and Newton Counties does homeless counts each January and July. They vary with the weather and other factors, but since 2007, the area has consistently had between 300 and 400 homeless people. The number spiked to 457 in January 2011.
Tammy Walker, a member of the coalition, said the count climbed to 848 in January 2012, but that included people who were living in the temporary housing units provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the May 22, 2011, tornado.
That latter number fell to 43 in January, the latest count, when the total was 371.
“There is a lot of housing coming back, but there is still a need for families who have a lot of barriers to being housed,” Walker said.
Like Wallace in Kansas, Walker said people often think of the homeless as the single man living on the streets or out of his car, but that is not the case. Many of the homeless are families who for various reasons, including economic factors and poor rental histories, do not have a permanent home.
“There are a lot of children included in the count,” she said.
Those who attended the summit said they were well aware of both the many faces of homelessness and the rate at which it occurs in their communities. They all work or volunteer for agencies or public service organizations that have some contact with the homeless and those living in poverty who are at risk of becoming homeless.
Attendees included peer tutors, school personnel, social services workers, city officials, law enforcement and corrections personnel, mental health professionals, and representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Salvation Army.
Gray said the summit was designed to provide them all with resources, networking, inspiration and a sampling of best practices of programs that are working in other communities.
Hillary Unrein, with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, talked about the consequences that problem and pathological gambling can have, from job loss to poor physical and mental health. She discussed how to recognize behaviors that indicate there is a problem and what kinds of demands are being placed on human services systems.
Tate Toedman, with the Kansas State Department of Education, led a panel of homeless liaisons from school districts who answered questions about what services districts can provide, and presented information about resources available to districts from the state.
Spencer, after her role-playing exercise was finished, said she will return to her charity work with her eyes even more wide open.
“We have more families qualifying now than a few years ago, more people who are coming to us because they are working for less wages than they used to,” she said. “We are seeing more older people than we used to.
“More families are seeking utility assistance and help from the food pantry. Being put in specific situations today like they are every day helped me a little bit to understand exactly what they’re dealing with.”
ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT IN AMERICA, anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.