By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
When Pat Valdez was laid off by Tri-State Building in 2010, he went from making $14 an hour to no income with which to support his wife and two stepdaughters.
That’s all it took for them to wind up in an emergency shelter for homeless families.
He looked for a job for two years. The economic downturn made it challenging.
“I could have gotten a job welding out of town, and that would have been good, but with no car I couldn’t get there,” he said. “It was humbling.”
Living in a rental house on Rose Street, the family hoped things would work out.
Karey, his wife, was working at McDonald’s as a shift manager, but was often unable to cover odd shifts for employees who called in sick because she was at home with her daughters and couldn’t get a baby sitter. She, too, lost her job.
Unemployment ran out. It was extended. It ran out again, and the Valdezes lost their house on Rose Street. They moved in with their adult son, but the one-bedroom house didn’t provide an ideal living arrangement.
On Sept. 14, Pat, his wife and his 8-year-old stepdaughter, Sami Halmai, found themselves standing with their suitcases outside SEK Choices Emergency Shelter at 212 N. Pine St., wondering how they got to the point of being homeless. Pat’s other stepdaughter, Darlene, 12, was sent to live with her biological father in Independence, Kan.
“I didn’t feel like a man,” Valdez said. “The thing that tore me up the most was seeing the hopelessness in my wife’s eyes. I don’t want to see that again, ever.”
The Valdez family isn’t alone, according to Becky Gray, director of research, planning and grants development at Southeast Kansas Community Action Program, commonly called SEK-CAP.
“The situation he described is playing out all over the country,” Gray said.
SEK-CAP serves housing and transportation needs for Allen, Bourbon, Chautauqua, Cherokee, Crawford, Elk, Labette, Linn, Montgomery, Neosho, Wilson and Woodson counties, and oversees the Pittsburg shelter, which in the past year has served 388 individuals and almost always is full.
“There are more homeless persons around than most people realize,” Gray said. “But homeless in rural America is very different. It might mean sheltered in homes that should not be considered shelters. Or it might mean spending the night in a car, or going from friend to friend or between relatives.”
Still others might camp in a tent in state public-use areas.
From October 2011 to October 2012, the Pittsburg-based shelter served 110 families — 159 adults and 229 children. They came from counties throughout Southeast Kansas.
“There are times when we have empty beds, but more often than not it’s almost always full,” Gray said.
It doesn’t help, she said, that Southeast Kansas continues to see increasing numbers of individuals living in poverty. In 2012, the poverty threshold is an income of less than $23,050 for a family of four; 15 percent of Americans — or 46.2 million people — are at or below that threshold, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In counties along the Missouri side of the border, the poverty rate stayed the same from 2007 to 2010 — the three years hardest hit by the recession. In the case of Newton County, it actually declined — from 16.8 percent in 2007 to 15.9 percent in 2010.
But on the Kansas side in Crawford County, it increased 3.6 percent, from 15.6 percent in 2007 to 19.2 percent in 2010. That’s 7,166 residents who live in poverty, with 2,262 of them younger than 18.
In the most southeastern corner, Cherokee County, it rose from 13 percent to 20.1 percent — a 7.1 percent increase in three years. That’s 4,280 residents living in poverty, with 1,481 of them younger than 18.
According to Brian Biermann, assistant superintendent of schools for Pittsburg, the district has 100 students classified as homeless.
Along with the increase in those seeking shelter has been an increase in questions about how SEK Choices will continue to operate.
Opened in 2005 by SEK-CAP, Pittsburg’s emergency shelter has an annual budget of $469,000. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and operates on a model of intensive case management.
It is partially funded through the Emergency Solutions Grant — federal dollars that are distributed by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation on an application basis.
This year, the shelter requested $469,000 through the program, and was granted $156,000. That money is funneled through the city of Pittsburg as the official grant applicant and is utilized by SEK-CAP, which administers the shelter.
“Generally, the philosophy behind that grant is to use it to support local efforts but to not be the total solution. They expect a 100 percent match, which SEK-CAP provides in the form of the building,” Gray said.
SEK-CAP is in contract negotiations with the city over the Emergency Solutions Grant, so funds have not yet been passed through. Gray said she believed negotiations will conclude this week.
It also receives about $20,000 annually in United Way funds, as well as private donations from individuals.
The remainder of the operating cost is absorbed by Community Development Block Grant funding, which remains in question. The Pittsburg shelter is one of eight in Kansas that receives funding from the federal program, which has been administered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since 1974.
Under this program, eligible community groups can receive grants for a range of projects that address housing, economic and human service needs of low- and moderate-income residents and neighborhoods. Seventy percent of the approximately $8 billion in federal funds annually goes to large metropolitan areas like New York and Detroit, while 30 percent goes to state governments to dole out to local governments and nonprofit groups for homeless assistance.
This year, there has been a push at the state level to move into western counties with Kansas’ $5 million share of the funding, meaning a portion of the Pittsburg shelter’s allocation might be distributed to previously unfunded counties.
The Washington, D.C.-based CATO Institute, one of several groups in favor of federal downsizing, advocates that it makes more sense for charitable groups and churches to deal with the problem on a local level rather than rely on funding to trickle down through multiple layers of bureaucracy.
A new model
Rather than continue to rely entirely on questionable federal and state funding sources, Gray said she believed three things need to happen to ensure the future of the Pittsburg shelter.
The first is to increase local support.
“The first step in getting that was to start a series of community conversations in order to generate an understanding of what’s happening here,” Gray said. “Many people don’t realize Pittsburg even has a shelter.”
Those conversations were held in mid- to late-October.
The second step is to increase partnerships with other entities, such as the one the shelter developed with Pittsburg State University.
“Students in social work (help) at the shelter, and students in automotive technology teach individuals how to do simple car maintenance. Students in business go over resumes and can do mock interviews,” Gray said, noting that such a partnership benefits the students, too.
Volunteers also could be used to prepare individuals in the shelter for education and employment, or to baby-sit while individuals are job hunting or taking a class, she said.
The third step is to consider a different working model for operation.
Some shelters simply provide individuals a safe place to be, to clean up, to warm up — they don’t require any activities such as submitting job applications, participating in chores or maintaining a curfew.
But SEK Choices does require those activities, mandates case management, and provides bedrooms, storage cabinets for food, a kitchen, a common room and a laundry room.
According to shelter manager Jami Crowder, the rules include no smoking, no profanity, no visitors, no food or drink, and no televisions or stereos in bedrooms.
While that model is incredibly successful, Gray said — roughly 44 percent of the shelter’s residents move into a permanent housing situation when they exit the shelter — it’s also the most expensive model of service provisions.
“Enforcing those rules and providing support requires a 24-hour staff that has the skills to do that,” Gray said.
Once negotiations with the city are complete, SEK-CAP will begin exploring a new model, one of rapid rehousing with supportive services, which could begin in the next 18 months.
In that model, homeless families might stay only a week, and during that time would be linked with a house that would be paid for with a rental subsidy for a short period of time — perhaps 12 months, but tapering off from 100 percent to a point at which the resident is paying the entire rent.
Intensive case management still would be offered on a regular basis.
Gray believes current funding could support seven households using that model. She is unsure what would happen to the shelter building, which SEK-CAP owns and wants to continue to use.
“We still are in the dreaming stages; it’s a great location near wonderful resources. We have lots of creative ideas, and some may be pie in the sky,” she said.
Valdez, meanwhile, is hoping his family can be among the success stories Gray likes to share.
“When I used to hear the word homeless, I had a whole different picture in my mind,” he said. “It’s not maybe what the stereotype suggests. There’s a lot of people here at the shelter who want to work. We’re not bums out begging on the streets for food — it’s just not like that.”
A chance meeting with a local landscaper as Valdez did his outside chores netted him a seasonal job. He worries what will happen when it ends, but for now he is making $9 an hour and the owner gives him a ride to and from work.
“It felt so great, not having to ask my sister or someone for help, to bring home money I could support my family with,” he said. “I have dignity now because I am working all day and that feels good. I’m proud. I’m exhausted, dirty from head to toe. But proud.”
His short-term goal is to find a place for the family to live that it can afford. He has until Dec. 14 to do so; the maximum stay at the shelter is 90 days. To that end, he has been putting three quarters of his paycheck in the bank each payday to save, and is hopeful that a low-income, two-bedroom apartment at the recently refurbished Hotel Besse may pan out as early as this week.
In some ways, he said, their stay at the shelter has made their life better than before.
“We’re reading a lot more, my wife and I,” he said. “We have no TV in our room, so we’re reading Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Sami likes to read ‘Goosebumps’ books. I walk her across the street to the library, which we never visited before, and then we’re together upstairs and have that time together.
“We were always close, but this brought us together to where we know we work as a unit. Karey is my teammate, my wife, my best friend.”
Once re-established in their own place, the Valdezes plan to save a lot more, not eat out as much and watch their spending. The couple also hope to use their experience as an illustration to Pat’s stepdaughter.
“I want her to learn how to budget and to inspire her to go to college to enhance her chances of employment,” Valdez said. “Life can change at the drop of a hat.”