The Faces of Homelessness: Number of those needing help grows in county

During the recession how many Bullitt Countians remain one hardship away from homelessness? The Shepherd's Shelter provides services to assist with such hardships, though the needs continue to grow for both the organization and its clients.

Formed in 2001, Shepherd's Shelter supplies homeless and those near homelessness with food, shelter and supportive services while helping to plan and maintain renewed self-sufficiency. Shepherd's Shelter is a faith-based non-profit organization.

Today Shepherd's Shelter maintains assistance for those in need while the organization itself is struggling to survive.

State Rep. Linda Belcher challenged Bullitt County to find ways of supporting Shepherd's Shelter, which she believes fills a need within the community.

"Shepherd's Shelter needs volunteer help and monetary assistance," said Belcher. "They bring a great service to our community and I hope we can find a way to maintain it."

Belcher said homelessness came in many forms, including children and families, the elderly and military veterans.

"There are some 100 kids in the district without homes," she said. "There is a problem here, but many times we just don't see it."

Sara McKinney Sulier, Shepherd's Shelter executive director and Housing Stability specialist, said the organization received an average of 40 help requests per week at various need levels.

Sulier reported that the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) determined anyone spending 30 or more percent of income on rent could not afford a savings account.

"You would be one hardship from homelessness," she said.

According to Sulier, Shepherd's Shelter assisted over 900 homeless or at-risk individuals in a one-year period, almost 400 of them children. About one third of those individuals could not be helped because of minimal financial resources.

Sulier mentioned homelessness wasn't just an adult male who maybe lost his job. It included single parents or entire families facing economic issues or illness, disabled and elderly people with little income, someone leaving an abusive relationship, substance abusers trying to successfully recover, even veterans returning home without a support system awaiting them.

Potential Shepherd's Shelter clients complete both an application and a personal assessment. Sulier said the organization was the first in the area to complete assessments.

"We're proud that we make time for them," she said. "You can't just go by an application. You must learn reasons, and learn if they're willing to take help and move forward."

Once assessed, an approved client is assisted by determining what benefits their personal needs.

Shepherd's Shelter provides emergency shelter on an as-needed basis. For more long-term housing assistance, the organization provides transitional housing and rental subsidies.

As Shepherd's Shelter acquires housing or apartments, the properties are used in transitional housing. Clients are allowed to live at the locations while trying to get their lives back in order.

"How can you expect someone to move forward, how can you be presentable in a job interview without an address or a phone," Sulier said. "How can someone look for a job when they live in a car?"

Shepherd's Shelter also provides case management and homeowner counseling. Clients receive assistance in budget, job and life skills as well as help in obtaining a GED.

Upon initial assessment, Shepherd's Shelter clients agree to goals with case managers, things they will make an effort to accomplish while assistance is provided. The case managers and volunteers will assist clients who are willing to better themselves and their life situations.

"Sometimes people are afraid if they don't have the support system and skills," said Sulier. "Encouragement and motivation can get people to do things that they don't believe they can do."

Shepherd's Shelter Housing Services director Sherry Brown works with clients in the Samaritan Program. Clients qualify for the program if they have disabilities, no dependents or have faced chronic homelessness.

Brown sets goals with each Samaritan client while discussing ways to achieve the goals. In turn, temporary housing is provided as long as the client works toward the set goals.

Despite a husband, four children and full-time schoolwork, Brown remains on call at all times for clients.

"Some need rides, assistance, some need help with doctor visits or medication," said Brown. "We began the (Samaritan) program last July, we've helped over 20 clients. We get no funds for that. Zero."

For homeless families, Shepherd's Shelter's Emergency Food and Shelter Program tries to provide temporary housing and family meals.

In many cases meals are provided to families courtesy of Shepherdsville Mr. Gatti's owner Pat Doctor, a Shepherd's Shelter co-founder. Other meals are provided through 2 Fish Ministries.

According to Brown, an Emergency Shelter Grant (ESG) helped provide temporary housing anywhere from six months to two years.

"One of our (ESG) mother's was completing hair design school," said Brown. One father, after his kids were taken away from their mother, needed a stable environment to get them out of foster care. He got his kids back because he had stable housing."

Brown added that a client must prove themselves will to achieve before they are allowed inside a provided home.

"We only have a number of houses," she said. "I can't put someone in there if I don't know they'll come out."

Shepherd's Shelter board member Linda Nason acts as a liaison with the Bullitt County Public School. Nason often works with school Family Resource Centers to determine if students are homeless or close to it.

"Part of what I do is I'm the coordinator for the homeless education program," said Nason. "Each school is required to try and identify students in need and get them help. If it's something you're never around you'd never know it existed around here. They don't want people to know."

The homeless education program promotes stability for students' educational experience. Nason said changing schools frequently or missing school altogether due to homelessness eventually led to a child missing out on a proper education.

"We try to reduce their moving around," she said. "We try to keep them in the same school for at least the school year. I try to be their support system."

Nason and tutor Vickie McCarthy assist about 55 students throughout Bullitt County that are known to be homeless. Nason believed there were many more not yet identified.

"Vickie works with the child, the teacher and the parents," said Nason. "We try to get everybody working together. It's easy to lose those children."

Despite the many issues Shepherd's Shelter faces in a year, financial support is still the greatest challenge.

In the past year Shepherd's Shelter provided over $300,000 in community services. Restricted grant funding helped with client services, housing and shelter, case management and education. The grant funding did not cover the organization's overall costs.

Shepherd's Shelter is currently renting office space at the Shepherd's Square Shopping Center. Sulier said the organization moved there to be closer to other vital programs used by clients.

A big challenge for Shepherd's Shelter in upcoming months is acquiring free office space along with financial support for operating expenses not covered by grants. Limited resources leave little time to educate the public.

Sulier hopes Shepherd's Shelter can gather other Bullitt County organizations to develop a task force that could address local needs and help with client referrals for jobs, along with an advisory board of community leaders to assist with fundraising efforts.