Do you ever think about what it is like to have to move from place to place nearly every day? What is it like to not have a permanent address, to not be able to count on having a roof overhead during cold fall and winter nights? If you were in that situation, are there local agencies that you could turn to for help?
The answer to the last question is yes. In the late spring of 2012, the Lincoln County Homelessness Task Force was established to address homelessness in our county. The Task Force is made up of representatives from HAVEN, the Tomahawk School System, Merrill Area Public Schools, North Central Community Action Program (NCCAP), Our Saviors Lutheran Church (Merrill), Northwoods Vineyard Church (Tomahawk), St. Vincent DePaul, the Tomahawk and Merrill Salvation Armies, the Merrill Food Pantry, the Merrill Police Department, Merrill Area United Way, Lincoln County Social Services, the Lincoln County Aging and Disabilities Resource Center (ADRC), Calvary Lutheran Church (Merrill), UW-Extension, Lincoln County, and concerned citizens.
The Task Force developed a vision statement to help guide its activities. Its vision is “Lincoln County will change its service system from one that manages homelessness to one that prevents and ends homelessness.” With this vision in mind and in the midst of goal setting sessions that took place late last year, members of the Task Force determined that the definition of homelessness in Lincoln County is the same one used by many agencies throughout the country. Homelessness is characterized as individuals and families who lack “fixed, regular, and adequate night -time residence.” The definition was established with the passage of the McKinney-Vento Act in 1987, a national bill that provides a variety of federally funded services to the homeless.
Considering this definition, the Task Force also established and achieved a goal of creating a much stronger referral system amongst its agencies, particularly between the ADRC and local school districts. This referral system will help ensure that challenged youth who graduate and are in danger of losing the support they were entitled to as youth be provided with a seamless transition to similar, much needed services as adults. The Task Force is also engaged in a comprehensive, ongoing campaign to educate the public about what the homelessness barometer in Lincoln County is like. Besides articles like this one, its representatives talk with groups and individuals about homelessness and Task Force initiatives.
Statistics compiled by the Task Force over the last several months help document that homelessness, especially among youth in our communities, is a more pervasive problem than many of us think. According to the Tomahawk School District, during the period March through May of 2013 there were 93 youth on average per month living in the district who were considered homeless based on McKinney-Vento definition. These were children either attending the schools (on average around 73 per month) or their siblings. The Tomahawk School System using grant dollars hired someone to identify these youth, so it is focused on serving them in every way possible. (Statistics are kept only during the school year.) The Merrill Area Public Schools does not have the grant, but the person who handles the homeless case load has identified on average between 15 and 20 homeless students per year over the past several years. Like the Tomahawk district, MAPS also does everything it can to administer to this struggling population but more can always be done.
During the March-May period, on average per month 22 women and children were living in the HAVEN shelter, often not sure where they would go next. Six individuals during the three month period were provided temporary hotel shelter through St. Vincent DePaul. Several of these folks were traditional homeless, meaning if they were not sheltered they likely would have had to stay out in the elements. For both HAVEN and St. Vincent DePaul, the monthly averages, about three people for the latter organization, changed very little through the summer.
At the end of July and the end of June each year, many communities throughout the nation conduct what are called point-in-time studies. The Task Force did so this past July, for the first time using volunteers rather than just police to canvass the area for traditional homeless. In rural areas this is often a problematic undertaking with so many out of the way places to sleep. People fall through the cracks. However, in July the Tomahawk team did find one person who was deemed homeless.
There is never a straightforward answer as to why people become homeless. Usually, there is some underlying issue such as a recent job loss or an addiction that has taken control of the person’s life. The underlying cause must be treated as well as the homelessness itself. If you know of someone or a family who is or who you think is about to become homeless contact one or more of the Task Force agencies. If they can’t help directly, they will refer you to someone who can.
In addition to the ongoing goals mentioned above, the Task Force will soon be deciding upon new objectives to pursue. One of those will likely be to support an effort by Tomahawk faith -based organizations and residents to develop a homeless shelter. If you wish to engage in such an effort or join the Task Force, please contact one of its agencies. The more people and organizations join the cause, the more likely that someday the Task Force’s vision can be realized.