Joplin study results in solutions to help the homeless

Friday, September 25, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 27, 2009

JOPLIN — Tina Ridenour was used to having a home and a way to provide for her children.

But when child protective services intervened in an abusive relationship with another family member and required her to leave the home two months ago or give up her children, Ridenour faced a tough situation.

Unable to work because she has painful knee and back problems, she had no family with whom she could live temporarily and her friends could not help her.

"I had no where to go," said the 40-year-old mother of three. "I didn't know what I could do. I was really scared."

She considered camping out in her car since it was summer, but people dissuaded her.

"I felt so bad because I've never been so down," she said.

Then, a social service worker suggested that Ridenour seek temporary shelter at the Salvation Army. Though she and her two minor children (the third child is grown) had to sleep on couches at first because the Salvation Army family quarters were full, they soon got a room of their own.

Now, she's getting computer training to help her find a job that she is physically able to handle until she can get medical treatment for her knee and back. Ridenour is also on a priority list for permanent housing that will stabilize her and the two children, ages 10 and 4, still living with her.

According to a yearlong study report released Sept. 11 by a committee appointed by the city of Joplin on homelessness, Ridenour's story is typical of a large number of residents found to be homeless.

The study says that the stereotype that all homeless people are just too lazy to support themselves and their families is wrong.

The "Headed for Home: Homeless Study Committee Report" was written by Watered Gardens Outreach founder James Whitford, who served as co-chairman of the committee, after a year of research by the 13-member group.

It cites figures by the Jasper/Newton County Homeless Coalition, which has done seasonal counts of the homeless people twice a year. In September 2008, the coalition counted 125 homeless people. Of that number, 39 reported having no place to stay while the rest were in shelters, staying with a relative or friend or had other temporary quarters.

Seventy-three said they had suffered from drug or alcohol addiction some time during the previous five years, and 45 reported being a current addict. Fifty-three of them said they would agree to treatment if it were available.

Homeless mother's plight typical of those found in city study

In national counts, slightly more than a third cite addiction and/or mental-health problems as a reason for homelessness and nearly half cited chronic health problems as the reason they could not support a home.

Yet, homelessness is much more expensive to society than helping people to stay in their homes, or providing one until they can support themselves, the study states. The study reports that costs of providing for publicly funded shelters, emergency room or outpatient hospital care, incarceration, or psychiatric treatment ran $40,000 to $42,000 per person a year.

A federal project that studied the issue, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, recommends an approach it calls "Housing First." That approach aims at reducing the costs of the homeless and working toward eliminating the issue.

The practice is one where communities can immediately place a homeless person in permanent housing and address the issues that created the crisis, whether those are addiction, health, joblessness or other factors.

Assistance through a "Housing First" program can reduce the costs of homelessness by at least a third, according to the report, with housing costing about $9,800 a year and services costing about $17,000.

The Joplin study outlines steps that could be taken over a three-year period to prevent or intervene in situations where people are at risk of losing their homes and to collaborate with services when someone does hit that barrier.

The study found that while the Salvation Army and Souls Harbor and others do provide shelter and other services, there is still a shortage of emergency and long-term housing for those without means to keep a home.

A big step in addressing the issue would be to establish an intake center that would have emergency and transitional beds, the study reports.

Joplin's city manager, Mark Rohr, announced Wednesday at a City Council work session that a private group has offered to donate $500,000 toward a fund to build a center or complex if the city would commit a donation of a like amount.

The council informally agreed to earmark $500,000 for that purpose, though how the remainder of the funds would be raised, who would run the center, how the operating costs would be paid and other details are undecided.

The study estimates the cost of such a center at $3.25 million and suggests the center be built within 30 months and the new plan for delivering services to the homeless be operating within three years.

Rohr said the group offering the donation has asked to not be identified and said he would not identify them.

Dan Pekarek, the city's health director and co-chairman of the study committee, said many of the details of the study such as building the intake complex, who would operate it and what services it would provide are yet to be worked out. A steering committee is in place to develop the details of the plan.

"I think the intent is to figure out what caused them to be homeless and get them in a more permanent housing," he said is the purpose of the intake complex. "The hope would be there would be case-management services for whatever their needs might be." The intake center could house people temporarily to ease the demand on the Salvation Army and Souls Harbor.

Pekarek said that to provide permanent housing, it would have to be decided whether to construct new housing or use grant money to buy and rehabilitate houses or apartments. Again, the details are sketchy and there is no plan in place.

Whitford, the study author, said in describing the contents of the report that such details were not offered so that the plan is flexible. That flexibility would leave such decisions to those with authority to carry them out, such as city officials, he said.

Ridenour said she has found that she is not alone in the need.

"There's a lot of people out there who need the help," she said.

"We need a place for the ones who need help with the drugs," she said she has learned as a result of her displacement. "There's a lot of people who need a place for them and their kids. They have help for women who have their children with them, but they have nothing for men who are in the same situation with their kids."

Capt. Mary Poff of the Salvation Army, whose husband served on the study committee, said the donations offered by the anonymous group "is amazing. That is a wonderful gift. And a great way to get started on what the homeless study recommends." The Salvation Army was housing 15 people at the time the study came out but feeding many more in its daily meals program.

Poff said she has been reading the study her husband helped to craft.

"What they came up is really amazing," she said. "And, the idea and the donation makes me smile because it shows the generosity in the city. It's very exciting."

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