Finding a permanent solution

For decades, Johnson County leaders have had only temporary fixes to the homeless problem.

Churches, social services and township trustees can offer a few nights in a hotel room, or assistance with utilities, rent or mortgage payments. People can put off sleeping in their car or on a friend’s couch for days or maybe weeks.

But soon enough, they’re right back in crisis situation. The only true solution has to be long-term.

“The last thing we want is to provide them with a ‘Band-Aid,’ just getting them in a hotel and not doing enough to really help them,” said Nancy Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County.

The United Way, along with a partnership of agencies, organizations and individuals working to reduce homelessness, think they have a solution. The coalition has assembled a major initiative set to start in September. “The Best First Step” will help identify individual poverty needs, case management and housing and financial assistance to comprehensively address the county’s homeless problem.

The goal is to help 22 families or individuals in the first year, with money through grants and the support of local churches, to provide more than just a temporary fix.

“There are no simple solutions,” said David Sever, board president of KIC-IT. “But this will work. It will happen.”

The effort has emerged from a campaign called No Place to Call Home, led by the United Way of Johnson County as well as homelessness agencies, such as KIC-IT, churches and other organizations.

The group started working in 2015 on investigating solutions to the homeless issue. The effort began with an in-depth report commissioned by the United Way, which brought together statistics on poverty, local employment and wages, cost of living and other factors to more clearly grasp the extent of homelessness in the county.

In addition to the report, organizers hosted a series of stakeholder meetings to find out what the community impact of homelessness in Johnson County is. Nearly 100 people from faith-based groups, schools, service agencies and law enforcement attended the meetings, offering their observations and possible solutions.

Analyzing all of the information compiled from the meetings, the No Place to Call Home steering committee talked about the most effective way to start addressing the problem.

The coordinated approach was best for a number of reasons, Plake said.

Using established support systems already operating in the community, the effort could be launched quickly, before the end of 2016. Doing so would unify and bring together all of the different entities already addressing the homeless problem, organizing them in a way that ensures their efforts make the most impact.

Most important is the fact that to get off the ground, the committee does not have to rely on federal funding. The complex and shifting system of money coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is frozen, with existing nonprofit groups already claiming what is currently available.

“We needed to find something where we didn’t have to wait four to five years to start working on it,” Plake said.

The program starts with a coordinated entry system. When a homeless person is identified through partnering sources, such as the United Way Helpline, churches, schools, agencies and the faith-based community, those groups will start the intake process.

Organizers will look at their immediate needs. They’ll find out what their situation is and the underlying issues behind their homelessness.

“We know that being homeless is not the root cause of their problems,” Plake said. “So whether it’s drug addiction, unemployment, a sudden crisis in their life, mental illness, we look at that.”

An emphasis will be made to find what can be done quickly for the person, with a look at temporary housing. But they’ll also be referred to a case manager through a network of existing organizations in the county.

For example, a homeless youth would be referred to KIC-IT, which is already working with young people and providing long-term guidance. Similar considerations would be given to those coming from situations involving domestic violence, mental health issues, seniors or veterans.

“We have some agencies in this county who are doing fantastic case management. What we’re trying to do is not reinvent the wheel,” Plake said. “We want to utilize those agencies that are doing case management and doing it well.”

With a case manager closely examining the client’s needs, they can put together a plan for what kind of financial and housing assistance they would need to break the cycle of poverty. Funding for that plan will be coordinated between the partner organizations.

“All these agencies, we see them getting together, discussing the problems they’re having, and finding solutions between the agencies,” Plake said.

KIC-IT, which is now an official United Way agency, will be the lead organization of the effort. The effort will be housed in its Franklin headquarters, and the group will handle the day-to-day implementation of the No Place to Call Home program.

Through the United Way, the program can take advantage of the established system of oversight and auditing that many grant-giving organizations require to be eligible.

Gateway Services, a Johnson County nonprofit group providing services to those with disabilities, will be the fiscal agent to oversee the finances of the effort.

In the first year, leaders have budgeted $65,000 of financial assistance to go to clients. That is not money that will be given directly to the client, but funds that will used on behalf of their case, Plake said.

Another $37,000 will go to the partnering case management agencies to pay for their work.

The remaining $130,000 will go towards staffing and administering the effort.

“When you think of charity, you think of people just giving and giving, and that it doesn’t cost agencies very much, because it’s all donation,” Sever said. “But in order to have an effective program, we need personnel who is trained, has the experience and the knowledge, and who is paid.”

The target is to take on 22 cases in the first year, helping both individuals and families, Plake said. That number would increase in following years.

The program will be funded initially through grants from the United Way, one for $52,000 and another for $30,000.

But in order for the program to be successful, No Place for Home advocates need help from local churches.

“Every church has a different set of doctrines and philosophies. So not every church is going to choose to contribute all or even some of their money into this,” Sever said. “What we need churches to do is understand and become educated as to what we’re trying to do to help long-term. But they have to decide if that’s something they want to commit to.”

Organizers, led by Greenwood Christian Church pastor Kent Patterson, are currently working with churches and faith-based organizations uniting their support. The hope is that the faith-based community can provide $120,000 towards the effort.

Currently, those same organizations are spending $131,777 per year addressing homelessness, mostly through emergency housing assistance and utility help.

“Churches give with their heart, and that’s phenomenal. That’s something that we need. But their dollars can go further with No Place to Call Home, because we’re attaching case management to those dollars,” said Kimberly Spurling, KIC-IT executive director and Franklin Community Schools community outreach coordinator. “Churches want to help someone in need, but that’s not really helping the individual for more than 24 hours.”

In future years, more money has been allocated from the United Way grants, and officials have earmarked United Way allocations and other fundraising efforts and grants to the program for 2017 and beyond.

But at this point, those amounts are just estimates, Plake said.

“The reality is that grants take a while to get. For us to put a dollar amount in there, we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” she said.

Leading up to the expected launch on Sept. 30, organizers have a series of large steps to complete. Foremost is to develop standards for who the program will target and who can receive help.

“You have to decide and determine what gets them to the long-term solution and get them housed. Sometimes, you have to make hard decisions on that,” Spurling said. “It’s heartbreaking, it’s a tough call, but it has to be made.”

Standards for how case management should be handled will be created. A set process for intake and assessing each client who comes to the organization has to be put in place as well.

The hope is to have a full-time program director hired by August, with an assistant brought on soon after.

“We’re going to be busy. But we can do it,” Plake said. “If we wait on everybody to get on board, this will not happen. That’s why we need to be moving forward. We need to go to those resources that are on board and that are willing to go with us. Hopefully, some of those who are on the fringes might see that this works.”

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.