Warren County has a homeless problem which has risen steadily the past three years, according to Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency local director Kim Luton.
Luton said her agency has placed 17 families in rental housing over the past four months. That’s in addition to people who have been placed in homeless shelters.
“The 17 families are just the ones we’ve worked with to find permanent housing,” said Luton. “It doesn’t include all the people we’ve placed in shelters in Tullahoma, Cookeville, Murfreesboro and in a couple cases Nashville.”
Luton said the local UCHRA office has seen five separate homeless cases in one week. Two people were relocated to the Cookeville shelter and three stayed in motels until longer-term housing arrangements could be made.
“Homelessness is an ongoing problem and has been for the last three years,” said Luton. “People are sleeping in their cars, beside the Civic Center and under bridges. They are finding places they can go to sleep and get out in the morning before someone spots them. I have heard during the summer many are staying down by the river.”
“The homeless are not who most people think they are,” Luton continued. “This homeless problem doesn’t know age groups. The most consistent group is becoming the elderly. They are consistent year after year. These people worked their whole lives but now they are only getting $800 to $900 per month of Social Security. It is hard to live on that amount. Many are having to make decisions. Do they buy medicine or pay their electric bill? Many don’t own their homes. They are still renting. One gentleman we helped last week is a veteran. How does this happen to veterans? They served our country. We need to take care of them.”
Luton said UCHRA rarely sees the same people over and over. “Most when given a little bit of hope and a little bit of help are making it on their own,” she said.
UCHRA will provide vouchers with the help of area churches for those in need to stay in a local motel for three nights.
“By the time we see them, they are usually worn out, tired and hungry. It takes three days to figure out what to do,” said Luton. “That gives the people time to rest and get food in their stomach. We saw a couple the week before last who had walked everywhere looking for a job. After they lose their job, they lose their car and they lose their home. Then they are out on the streets.”
Luton said UCHRA will try to find some individuals an apartment and the agency will pay the first month’s rent. “We really want them to be established in an apartment and want them to be able to pay the second month’s rent. It won’t do any good if we get them in there one month and then they are out in the same situation they started in,” she said.
UCHRA can meet the physical needs, but Luton says a place that can provide counseling is required.
Warren County has a men’s shelter which stays full and has a waiting list. It’s a privately run shelter operated by Lighthouse Full Circle – not a government agency like UCHRA.
The county does not have a shelter for women and children, which is why UCHRA will transport some people to the shelters in Cookeville or Tullahoma. People are able to stay in those shelters for up to six weeks and counselors will help find jobs based on the individual’s skills. Luton said people who are transported to the shelters must pass a background check and a drug test.
“You must be drug-free to stay there,” she said. “I don’t think people with drug problems are coming here as a general rule.”
Luton said there is a need for the Hope Center in Warren County, which is an upstart organization aimed at helping people get back on their feet. “We can meet their physical needs but many need more than that. We need a place that can provide counseling services,” she said.
Luton also said she has talked to representatives from local churches about the possibility of starting a program called “Room in the Inn.” Under this program, churches would open their facilities to provide shelter and food for homeless people during the winter. The simple goal of the fellowship is to keep homeless people from freezing on cold winter nights.
For more information about UCHRA, including services provided by the organization, go to www.uchra.com or call 473-6652.