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February 1, 2013

Cass County homeless: Who are they?

Counting the homeless no easy task, say shelter administrators

As Karen Woodruff cut small hearts from sheets of reflective red paper, she reflected on the stereotypes she’d encountered in her last three months.

Lazy. Won’t get a job. Entitled. But that doesn’t describe her, she said.

The 54-year-old former health care worker is one of about 20 who are staying at Emmaus Mission Center’s homeless shelter temporarily until finding a permanent living situation. On Wednesday, she helped prepare for the center’s Valentine’s Day activities as seven backpacks filled with basic necessities awaited distribution.

Not one backpack left the center, though.

Wednesday was the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point In Time count day, on which volunteers around the country staff care package giveaway points in each county, hoping to attract homeless persons to the points so they can be counted.

The Emmaus center put together seven care packages for the occasion — the backpacks. Nobody had shown up to get a backpack for the last three to four years’ worth of count days, said Jason Mitchell, the mission’s director, so he didn’t anticipate anyone coming this year, either.

And, “unfortunately,” he said, that’s exactly what happened.

But there certainly are homeless persons living in Logansport and the surrounding area. The center sheltered about 200 people in 2012, said Mitchell. He attributed the lack of turnout on Point In Time day to the fact that it’s always in January, one of the coldest months.

But who are they?

Homeless people in Logansport can be any age, said shelter director Diane Hurtt — some at the center this week are in their late 20’s and 30’s, and one resident is around 70 years old.

One thing they have in common is that they’ve “fallen on hard times,” she said.

“It’s not the stereotype of Chicago, of people going around with their buggies — the hard-core homeless,” explained Hurtt. Instead, “it’s basically the loss of a job, where the finances are not there and they can’t hold on to what they’ve had.”

In some cases, said one volunteer, unexpected health problems have drained people’s bank accounts so that they can’t pay their rent. Hurtt confirmed that.

HUD assistance requirements also prohibit a recipient from staying with family for more than 14 days, Hurtt added, and poor spending choices contribute to some people’s homelessness.

For Woodruff, going to the homeless shelter was her only way of leaving an emotionally abusive living situation. At first, she was hard put to admit she needed the shelter’s help.

“I asked God to help me be humble and come here,” she said, “and I had to do my part and be humble. Because who wants to say they’re homeless?”

Woodruff said she “can’t be lazy” at the Emmaus Mission Center’s homeless shelter where she’s been staying the last three months — between cleaning, cooking most weeks, and studying to earn certification through Indiana Tech as a health information technician, she keeps her days full.

She’s also required to abide by the center’s curfew and rules against drinking and drug abuse.

Hurtt said anyone unfamiliar with homelessness might think homeless people are lazy, at least at first. But “it’s just not that easy anymore,” she said. “Times are getting rougher.”

Older job-seekers have had an especially hard time finding jobs, she said, and can fall through the cracks of assistance programs.

Shelter residents who don’t have jobs often volunteer at the mission center, said Hurtt, so they can add the work to their resume to help fill any employment gaps. The mission center will also provide life skills training and assist with other needs, like medication, transportation or instruction toward a General Educational Development diploma.

“This was completely new to me,” said Woodruff. Once employed at three different jobs simultaneously, she’d never entered a homeless shelter or known anyone who had done so. The closest she’d been was speaking with Mitchell last year for a paper she wrote on homelessness in Cass County.

Now on the waiting list at one of Logansport’s subsidized apartment complexes, she has three months left until she reaches the shelter’s six-month limit. Woodruff says she’s grown close to the shelter’s other residents.

“Someday I want to write a book about my experience here,” she said. “You become a family, and just like family, sometimes you argue with them, sometimes you’re happy with them.”

That part, at least, was familiar to Woodruff, who said she grew up with six brothers and two sisters.

Now she tries to welcome new residents at the shelter because she remembers how scared she was when she was new herself.

“We’re human beings,” she said. “The saying, ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ could go for anybody.”

Emmaus Mission Center’s homeless shelter will have an open house later this month. Visitors may tour the center from 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 and speak to volunteers about the shelter.

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151.

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