Attacking Homelessness in Sidney and Shelby County

By Mike Barhorst - Contributing columnist

Part two of Mike Barhorst’s recent column: For the past couple of years from October through April, the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness has met monthly in an attempt to find a multi-pronged solution to a problem, the extent to which the members of the group still have little idea as to its scope. It has proven to be impossible to gather the statistical data from the multiple churches, social service agencies and individuals who help those in need within the community.

Believing that there was a need, especially on cold winter nights, Gerald Christman opened a shelter during the winter of 2014-15 in the Russell Road Church. A handful of people took advantage of the shelter.

Critics believed that the shelter was underutilized because it was so far away from those who needed a place to get out of the cold. Those individuals believed strongly that the shelter needed to be located downtown.

Sidney First Methodist Church Pastor Dr. David Chivington stepped forward and offered an ideal downtown location in the basement of their building, complete with kitchen, shower facilities, and adequate room for dozens of cots. That facility was used during the winter of 2015-16, and despite Director Mary Ann Smiley’s best efforts as well as the efforts of dozens of volunteers, that location too, saw limited use. At the end of the winter, Dr. Chivington sent me an email in which he concluded that “the whole experience has made us wonder about the real need for ‘a warming shelter’ in Sidney Ohio.”

Again the critics weighed in. They believed that the shelter was underutilized because it was in a house of worship, and that must have “turned off” those who were homeless.

This year, the board of the Alpha Center voted to allow their facility to be utilized as the overnight shelter. Terry Sharp, who served as the assistant director of the shelter last year, agreed to serve as the director.

Thus far this winter, the shelter has been open eight nights (the shelter only opens on nights when the temperature is predicted to drop below 20 degrees.) The shelter has averaged 2.9 guests per night. That number has been buttressed by a local couple who stayed at the shelter for three nights while the furnace in their home was being replaced; a guest who has stayed at the shelter every night it has been open who has adequate resources to own or rent a residence, but chooses to live in a tent; and transients who were delivered to the center during the wee hours by the local police department.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that for some years, the Shelby County Ministerial Association has, through an arrangement with local hotels, provided accommodations for those needing emergency shelter. Last year, they provided shelter for 35 individuals.

I also want to point out that as their space has permitted, New Choices has provided emergency shelter for women and children if they are willing to follow the house rules. This past year, New Choices provided shelter for 18 women and children. Before the advent of 2-1-1 service, New Choices also provided referrals to those who found themselves in need of shelter.

So the question remains. “Does the community need a free-standing, single purpose homeless shelter?” There is a second question that also begs to be answered. “Can the community afford a free-standing, single purpose shelter, if it is only going to be occupied a few days of the year?”

Members of the Mayor’s Task Force, including government representatives (Commissioner Bob Guillozet and myself), visited the Caring Kitchen in Urbana in 2015. That facility is a one-stop-shop that provides warm meals and simultaneously serves as a food pantry, a clothes closet, and a homeless shelter for Champaign County.

Interdenominational and supported by nearly every church in Champaign County, that facility could be a model for a similar facility here.

Hopefully we will have some meaningful statistics in the future that will help guide the decisions about what is really needed in the community. While I understand the reluctance of the Salvation Army’s Divisional Command to commit dollars to combat a problem there is scant evidence that needs solving, I remain as frustrated (or perhaps more so) as Mr. Baird that there remains on their property a home that has been vacant for some time that could be used for transitional housing — something the community does need.

That would allow the Salvation Army to be a part of the multi-pronged solution the Task Force has attempted to put in place for the community. It would also help them avoid continued criticism from donors who contributed money for a good cause but was never expended for that purpose.

By Mike Barhorst

Contributing columnist

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.