A Closer Look: Homelessness in Pittsburg

by Megan Stoneberger Johnson

The cluster of tents set up on Wesley House property will be coming down in the near future.

“We’re trying to help people, and now we are having to let them leave,” Marcee Binder, executive director of Wesley House, said.  The agency is working hard to find housing for the twelve homeless individuals on the property, who represent about a third of the homeless who use Wesley House’s day shelter for case management, food, access to a telephone, and respite from the heat.

According to Binder, the encampment has provided a safe space for some individuals who have had no other place to go.  Binder said that some of the homeless had been staying in trees, parks, cars, or crashing on couches before moving into tents on Wesley House property.  Women have told her of even having to perform sexual acts in order to have a place to stay for the night.

Binder pointed to her faith as calling her to serve this vulnerable population. “The Bible says that you are supposed to help people that don’t have shelter, food, water,” she said. “So, in my interpretation, that means giving your neighbor a tent when they don’t have somewhere to stay, giving them somewhere safe to stay.”

One of the homeless who will soon have to vacate the property is Jerry, a 76 year-old diabetic.  Jerry is very thin with a long white beard.  He has no teeth and his speech can be difficult to understand.  He has been blind in one eye since an accident when he was four years old.  He said that he does not know what he will do when he leaves the camp.  He has been found wandering around, not knowing where he is, due to the heat and his fluctuating blood sugar.  Jerry said he has hopes of moving into the Besse hotel, but doesn’t know if he’ll be able to get an apartment before being forced to vacate the camp.  “Don’t have much left,” Jerry said, “but I’d like to enjoy what time I have.”

Another camper, Jeff, said he hopes Jerry will be the first to be placed in housing.  Jeff said that many of the homeless there are in need of help due to disabilities.  “It’s a misconception that the homeless are looking for a handout,” he said.  “They’re looking for a hand up.”

This is Jeff’s third time experiencing homelessness.  He said he became homeless after he lost his house in the Joplin tornado in 2011.  Later, the garage apartment he had been staying in burned down.  After regaining housing, he said, he had been arrested and jailed for cashing bad checks.  “People make mistakes, Lord knows I have,” he said.  “But I’m just trying to go to work, go to church, and find a place to live.”

Binder says that finding permanent housing is a difficult and long process. The homeless, Binder says, are living in a constant state of chaos, having to “hunt” for food, shelter, and resources.  According to Binder, many of the homeless who utilize the day shelter are exhausted because they have to walk around all night with nowhere safe to stay.  She recounted the story of one homeless man who was stabbed while sleeping downtown.

Cities across the nation have increasingly had to address the issue of homelessness as federal and state governments have cut mental health and housing funding, according to Assistant City Manager Jay Byers.

“I think that we are facing a scenario that a lot of cities are facing across the nation,” Becky Gray, Director of Housing and Community Development says, “and it is to the scale of our community.  I don’t think that we are seeing it any worse than anyone else.”

Byers and Gray agreed that the issue of homelessness in complex and requires a multifaceted approach.

According to Gray, there is a broad spectrum of people seeking subsidized housing in Pittsburg. This group includes single mothers and their children, people with severe and persistent mental illness, and senior citizens on limited fixed incomes.  “The folks who are here who are homeless are from here, or immediately around here,” Gray said.

One of Gray’s duties as Director of Housing and Community Development is to coordinate social service entities in the community, particularly as they relate to housing, including addressing homelessness.   This network of homeless service providers includes Crawford County Mental Health, Wesley House, and the Community Housing and Development office.

The city also administers three grants that impact the availability of subsidized housing in Pittsburg:  Section 8 vouchers (commonly recognized as HUD),  Tenant Based Rental Assistance, and the Emergency Solutions Grant.

Section 8 is long term housing subsidies based on income.  Gray said the waiting list to receive HUD is about 8 months long.

Tenant Based Rental Assistance (TBRA)  is used to shorten that wait; however, it can take a couple months to receive TBRA.

The Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG), which the city has received multiple times and the City Commission approved to accept again Tuesday, assists families in the community who are or about to be experiencing homelessness.  In the past, these funds were passed to SEK-CAP to operate the CHOICES shelter.  Since the closing of the CHOICES shelter, the grant has been rewritten to align with the “Housing First” model, which recognizes that other barriers (unemployment, mental health, etc.) will be more easily addressed if a person has the security of being housed.  Pittsburg uses ESG money in homeless prevention (helping to keep people in their current housing), homeless case management, and the Wesley House day shelter, as well as in Rapid Rehousing, which can cover the costs of getting into housing quickly, including deposits, rent, and the costs of moving.  Gray said the Rapid Rehousing funds could be utilized within a couple of days.

However, Binder said, “Rapid Rehousing is anything but rapid.” Because finding housing is a difficult process, no resident of Wesley House’s encampment has been placed in housing since the camp set up in June, despite receiving services and case management from Wesley House.

“Oftentimes when someone experiencing homelessness first presents for assistance, they are in crisis mode,” said Gray.  For many homeless, coping with trauma and/or mental health issues can prolong the process of finding housing, according to Gray.

Another obstacle is finding housing that meets HUD standards of safety and fair market rent.  “People who have [Section 8] vouchers and are not getting houses…are saying they are having a hard time finding a landlord that will participate,” Gray said.  She said that landlords refuse to participate because either their properties are not up to code and they are unwilling to make improvements or because previous tenants receiving Section 8 vouchers have caused damage to their properties and landlords are therefore unwilling to accept them.

Gray also points to the available housing stock as one issue in Pittsburg.  Although there are many uninhabited properties in town, Gray said many are unsafe and unlivable.   One way the city is addressing the number of uninhabitable properties is through the establishment of a “land bank,” which will make improving properties more appealing to developers.

Ultimately, both Binder and Gray agreed that an emergency shelter is what is truly needed to fill the gap in homeless services currently available.  According to Gray, “We need a building where people can be safely sheltered, where services can be housed, and we need an entity to take on the liability of that.”

Binder invited residents who are concerned about the wellbeing of Pittsburg’s homeless to donate time, money, and resources, and also encourages landlords and employers to step up to provide housing and jobs.  Individuals can also join a homeless services task force formed by the city by contacting Becky Gray at the Housing and Community Development office.

“The community has to trust that we did the best that we could,” Binder said.  “The solution is, let’s come together and figure something out so that this doesn’t continue to happen.”

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