by Luisa Singletary, United Way Summer Associate
“Everyone deserves a second chance.”
A simple statement, but for those faced with the reality of rebuilding their lives after losing the precarious balance of financial stability, this can be the beginning of realizing they can reclaim their lives. In fact, many agencies in Knox County are working to provide resources to those struggling silently in our community.
Because homelessness is usually characterized by individuals or families on city street corners with sharpied cardboard signs and cups of loose change, it would be easy look at a rural area like Knox County and assume homelessness is not a serious issue.
Heidi Burns, of The Winter Sanctuary, Mount Vernon’s only homeless shelter, explains this assumption is incorrect.
"It is a myth that small communities don’t have homelessness,” said Burns, who serves as the Executive Director and Advocate for the shelter. “In rural communities, it’s more hidden.” Homeless individuals in small towns find shelter by sleeping in cars, couch-hopping, or staying with their families. In the winter months, they are given an additional option: they can seek solace in The Winter Sanctuary.
The Winter Sanctuary is open November through April to men, women and children.
Burns describes The Winter Sanctuary as a “safe and stable place” for people who “don’t know where to start.” At The Winter Sanctuary, you are welcome to stop in, take a shower, do your laundry, get something to eat and make phone calls during the entire year, and stay overnight during the harsh winter months.
With the help of the advocate, guests can also begin the process of rebuilding their lives. At the start of their appointment, Burns hands them a goal sheet and says, ‘write down what you want to work on.’ They then formulate a plan for reaching their goals.
“I need to find housing, I need to get a job, I need to get my GED,” said Burns of the typical responses she gets. “I provide them with resources.”
And she does. Burns helps guests scale numerous roadblocks to financial stability including finding employment, housing and medical assistance, working through substance abuse issues, or taking the necessary steps to get something as seemingly complicated as their GED or as simple as a photo ID. She and her staff give each guest individualized help to help them meet their goals.
“I can meet with them every day if need be,” said Burns. She is dedicated to making the shelter a place “where we mentor and support people.”
Though The Winter Sanctuary is the only homeless shelter in Knox County, that doesn’t stop Burns from utilizing all the resources the small community has for the benefit of her guests. “Being in a small town means being able to help and support each other,” she said.
After reviewing each guest’s goal sheet, she begins directing them to agencies on her seemingly endless list of partnerships in the community. For medical insurance or food stamps, they contact Job and Family Services; for housing, guests are set up with Metro Housing; if they need mental health services, they are directed to Behavior Healthcare Partners; for domestic violence assistance they are referred to New Directions; Opportunity Knox provides resume training; and the Health Department comes to the shelter to give immunizations and provide resources for those who wish to quit smoking. The list goes on and Burns recognizes the importance part these community agencies play in not only helping the homeless, but improving the county as a whole.
“When the community helps the homeless, it makes them healthier,” said Burns. Another one of the many agencies the Winter Sanctuary uses for referrals is Southeastern Ohio Legal Services (Legal Aid). Legal Aid helps with immediate legal issues and provides general legal representation to those who cannot afford it.
“Our mission is ‘use legal services to end or combat poverty’,” said Melissa Will, one of Legal Aid’s staff attorneys. Based in a few locations in Ohio, Legal Aid was able to help many areas, but with its closest office in Newark, the attorneys were having difficulty reaching Knox County. Because Licking County has a larger population and is closer to Columbus, they have more resources than Knox County, including two full-time shelters. In light of these differences and distance between Knox and Licking counties, Legal Aid decided to focus their services more intentionally on this community.
Will explained that Legal Aid requested funding from United Way to “let us have permanent time in Knox County to do what we do.” But what specifically does Legal Aid do?
“We do everything but criminal cases. [We do] housing, medical, Medicaid, food stamps and domestic issues,” said Will. “There are a lot of ways legal assistance can help.” Outside of legal assistance, Legal Aid also gives advice and provides a legal check-up.
During a legal check-up, a client is given the opportunity to sit down with an attorney and discuss how they became homeless or other legal issues they may have faced.
“You’re currently homeless, let’s talk about rights as tenant, why you got evicted, and what we can do to help change the course and give you advice to keep this from happening again,” said Will of what is typically discussed in a legal check-up. The attorney can also give the client their credit report and discuss their credit history with them.
This legal advice is also accessible for clients who are staying at the Winter Sanctuary and may not be able to get transportation to another location. Will has “gone to the shelter half a dozen times” to answer client questions from social security to what happens legally when a parent passes away. Because she is available for anyone with questions, she finds these sessions especially necessary.
“It’s less formal and more helpful,” said Will.
Will captures the singular, shared goal the Winter Sanctuary and Legal Aid have cultivated through their partnership: “If we can have an impact on reducing the number of times people come back to the shelter, that would be our goal.”