SIDNEY — Unable to meet since February as a result of the pandemic, the members of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness voted at their June meeting to discontinue their work. The vote followed the report from Salvation Army Social Ministries Manager Angela Grilliot, who told the task force that despite the fact that the warming shelter was opened 17 nights this winter, not a single guest stayed overnight.
This year’s attendance was not dissimilar to previous years. A handful of guests have stayed overnight in previous years. Last year, for example, six unique guests stayed a total of eight nights, reported Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst.
A warming shelter has been operated in the community for several years. The idea came about as a result of a meeting called by then Director of Job and Family Services Tom Bey.
“Tom called and asked if I could meet with him,” Barhorst said. “I was surprised to walk into his conference room and find judges, law enforcement officials and representatives of social service agencies gathered together. They were insistent that I needed to address the issue of homelessness.”
That meeting led to a community forum on homelessness. Barhorst convened that meeting on Jan. 22, 2015, with nearly 100 community members in attendance.
“The Russell Road Church stepped into the fray and operated the first warming shelter,” Barhorst said. “Their efforts were shepherded by Jerry Christman, who is a member of the church’s congregation.
“Despite Jerry’s best efforts, only a few individuals ever availed themselves of the opportunity to stay at the shelter,” Barhorst said. “Critics opined that the reason the homeless did not stay at that location was that it was too far from the center of town.”
In part because of the criticism, the warming shelter was moved downtown to the First Methodist Church.
“Lead Pastor David Chivington really felt called to help,” Barhorst said. “The congregation supplied volunteers, and even prepared a hearty evening meal. Many nights, the volunteers ate the dinner they had prepared so that the food would not go to waste, and then went home when no one came to the shelter.”
Even the opportunity to take hot showers did not seem to provide an inducement for guests to stay.
“Councilmembers Steve Wagner, Darryl Thurber and I stopped by the first night they were open,” Barhorst said. “While one individual was already sleeping, we witnessed another who left because there was no color television for him to watch and another who did not want to follow the few rules that were posted.”
The critics again weighed-in expressing their belief that potential guests were inhibited from coming to the shelter because it was housed in a church. As a result, the shelter was moved to the Alpha Community Center.
Not only was the Alpha Center located downtown, but it was already well-established as a place where those needing a hand-up could go for help. Even so, very few people opted to use the Alpha Center, even on some of the coldest nights.
“Despite the low level of shelter utilization, the members of the Task Force were not yet willing to give up,” Barhorst said. “The leadership of the local Salvation Army stepped forward and offered to host the warming shelter. That first year (2019), a few individuals stayed a few nights. During the winter which just ended, the shelter was open 17 nights, and not a single individual spent the night.
“While we (the Task Force members) are grateful for the Salvation Army’s willingness to host the shelter, we do not believe that recruiting volunteers to staff the shelter and preparing meals for guests who never arrive is a good use of community or Salvation Army resources,” Barhorst said.
The motion to recommend that efforts to assist the homeless population no longer be directed to operating a warming shelter during the winter months passed without a dissenting vote. The vote would have been unanimous had The Salvation Army’s representative at the meeting not abstained from voting.
A motion was then offered for the task force to cease operations and recommend that the Continuum of Care create a sub-committee on homelessness. That motion too passed without dissent, although Barhorst abstained from that vote.
The motion was prompted by comments made by Barhorst, who has chaired the task force since it was created.
“I think everyone in this room has seats at the Continuum of Care meetings. Perhaps it’s time to simply realize that we can spend our time in ways that produce better results,” Barhorst said.
The meeting was held at Murphy’s Craft Bar + Kitchen. In addition to Barhorst, those attending the meeting included Shelby County United Way Executive Director Scott Barr, Bridges Community Action Case Worker Sierra Beaty, Salvation Army Social Ministries Manager Angela Grilliot, Shelby County Commissioner Bob Guillozet, Bridges Community Action Partnership Shelby County Manager Lynda Lukey, Family and Children First Council Director Diann Rodrigues, New Choices Executive Director Danielle Schweitzer and Shelby County Metropolitan Housing Executive Director Judy Wells.