Paducah, KY – The face of homelessness is changing. That's the message advocacy groups are sending for national Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. In Kentucky, the annual homeless count tallied six thousand people earlier this year. Monday in Paducah, the Paducah Cooperative Ministry held a forum to bring attention to the rural homeless. Angela Hatton brings us this report from the event.
The city commissioners' chambers at Paducah City Hall have been transformed. Dozens of people mill about, some reading the posters propped on easels around the room that tell true homelessness stories. On the dais in front of the public seating, a drape covers the bank of commissioner seats. Over a hundred pairs of children's shoes are on display. Paducah Cooperative Ministry Executive Director Heidi Suhrheinrich explains the shoe exhibit at the beginning of the forum.
"Our goal is to raise awareness of the staggering growth of homelessness here in our community and particularly as it relates to families with children . . . the new face of homelessness."
The pairs of shoes represent the number of children PCM served last year at their shelter, 109. That's out of 319 households.
"In that same twelve month period 689 individuals were denied shelter by the Paducah Cooperative Ministry for lack of space. That's more than twice the number of admissions. Two-hundred-eighteen of those were children."
Kentucky has the ninth highest number of homeless children in the nation. Suhrheinrich says other local agencies that serve the homeless are in similar situations. River City Mission and the Merryman House each saw more children and turned away more individuals last year than ever before. However, Suhrheinrich says they always work with people to find some way of getting them a place to sleep.
"Sometimes that involves a Greyhound bus ticket to Nashville or Carbondale."
PCM Homeless Shelter Director Sheila Forrest says people come to them for a lot of reasons.
"We have a lot of folks that relocate. That's one of the reasons. There are folks that run into issues with their relationship. Sometimes it's not exactly domestic violence, but it's just a break-up. People that live with their family can't stay there anymore. Doubled up, tripled up. Just run out of room so they have to leave."
PCM provides shelter for up to ninety days. Forrest says in that time counselors work to jumpstart individuals with housing applications, job placement and training, mental health treatment, and bus transportation.
"We always tell them we're a very temporary shelter, very intensive, in their business, in their face with you gotta do this, you need to do this, let's do this, what about that?"
PCM Executive Director Heidi Suhrheinrich says the Purchase region suffers from a dearth of facilities to help the homeless. Paducah has PCM, River City Mission, and the Merryman House, which serves domestic violence victims.
"In Graves County, we have the Mayfield-Graves County Men's Mission and Lighthouse, which is for women with children. The only other thing is the Gentry House in Murray, which is a transitional housing unit. And that's it."
That leaves many counties without any nearby shelter assistance. And Suhrheinrich says there are other complications.
"Paducah Cooperative Ministry is the only shelter in the area for just single women. So if we need to find a bed for a single woman that we can't accommodate, we need to go to Hopkinsville. And sadly the bus doesn't go to Hopkinsville."
PCM officials hope this week's forum and similar events happening around Kentucky will bring not only awareness, but funding and programs to assist homeless families. They hope the event reached many of the right people to do so. Representatives from local non-profit agencies, city and state government, and county schools attended. Paducah Mayor Bill Paxton issued a proclamation that promised to educate the public on homelessness. He said the issue must be constantly addressed, because homelessness isn't a problem that's going to ever go away.