Is it worth all the work, funds and energy spent on a local house that can only shelter one homeless family every three months?
“We’ve been told, ‘You do so little. It’s only four families a year you can help,’” Gilliland said. “‘And is it worth it? Is it worth those four families?’ Would it be worth it if it was you as one of those four families? That’s the only answer you can give. We can’t change the world, but we’ve got to do something.”
Gilliland is a member of the Franklin County Emergency Temporary Shelter Association, a group that formed several years ago.
It operates a facility in Franklin County that helps homeless families get the help they need to turn their lives around. A second such housing facility is in the works.
“This is a place where people can say, ‘I’m here. I’m safe. I’m comfortable. I’m warm. Now I can plan,” Becky Nevergold, Communities in Schools director, said.
Franklin County Emergency Temporary Shelter Association, or FRETSA, got its first major push with a contribution from the late Eileen Roseberry estate.
At about the same time, FRETSA was gifted with the use of a single-family house.
“We had to battle the neighborhood,” Gilliland said. “Boy, they had all kinds of rumors going. The concept that the neighborhood had, they were sure we were going to have all sorts of everything going on there.”
The house is located on the south side of Ottawa, Gilliland said, but its exact address is not released to the public because domestic violence victims have stayed there before, and could stay there again.
The fully furnished house now is housing its sixth family, which is able to stay in the residence rent-free for up to 90 days, and the funds from Roseberry’s contribution go to sustaining the house, or “Roseberry House,” as board members aptly named it.
The facility has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full basement and a double car garage.
“It’s not a new house, but it’s been well-maintained,” she said.
There are rules the family must abide by during their stay in the house, Gilliland said, which includes a strict no pets, no drugs and no smoking policy.
They also are encouraged by different entities to pursue employment and start a savings fund, so by the time their 90 days are up, they’ll have saved enough for a deposit or down payment in a new home, Gilliland said.
“All these people work with them, and we try to keep close tabs on them, teach them budgeting, work with them about saving money, so by the end of the 90 days, hopefully they’ll have saved enough through the job we’ve found them or they’ve found so they can get back into the workforce,” Gilliland said. “And that’s the only kinds of families we’re interested in.”
To apply to be a resident of the house, individuals must apply through Hope House, ECKAN or another social service organization in the community. Then a committee reviews their application and decides if they’d be a good fit.
About 10 to 12 families are waiting for a FRETSA house, Gilliland said, meaning they’ve been pre-approved, but another vetting session would happen to determine who will be next in line.
“That’s when you have to get really nitty gritty and say, ‘OK. We’ve got six applications and we have to narrow it down to one.’ It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. But it has to be done.”
At Christmastime, FRETSA received another special gift.
The organization was given a second home, Gilliland said — a mobile home unit situated permanently in a mobile home park.
“The lady who owned it was refurbishing,” Gilliland said. “She put down all new carpet, new appliances ... new kitchen cabinets that weren’t even finished yet, and she dropped dead.”
Because the woman’s heirs were not local, they decided to put it to use as a homeless house in FRETSA’s care.
Because of the waiting list, volunteers are working as fast as they can to finish up work on the second house.
“The cabinets need finished,” she said. “There are little things she didn’t get done, but we’re working on it, and we have people waiting for both of [the housing facilities].”
The main issue with having a second house, Gilliland said, is raising the funds to sustain it. And since a donor hasn’t yet stepped forward, it’s just being called the FRETSA House for now, Gilliland said.
“There’s just not enough money [in our budget],” Gilliland said. “We’ve got to find funding. The FRETSA house is dependent on community funding. It just is. That’s a scary thing because it’s expensive.”
The same could be true about a potential homeless shelter, which has been discussed by many organizations and individuals in the past.
“Opening a shelter would be wonderful, but the cost is mammoth,” Gilliland said. “We talked about a shelter before we were offered this house, but with a shelter, you are talking on-site supervision, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get it started, and frankly, we just don’t have that kind of funding. ... We are doing all we can do with the limited funds we have.”
Opening a shelter
A shelter would be beneficial in so many ways, Nevergold said, especially for the more than 180 students in the Ottawa school district who currently are classified as homeless.
“On Friday night, if dad’s drunk and mom says, ‘You’re out. Here’s your clothes,’ and you’re out the door,’” Nevergold said. “We also know families who have lived in cars and abandoned buildings, and those people need a shelter. And the Lawrence shelter is often full. Getting to Topeka can be a problem. We can’t have that many individual homes, but we have that many issues.
“There are lots of opportunities to have a shelter, and it hasn’t materialized yet, but it will. I really believe it will,” Nevergold said.
A shelter, she said, would provide a feeder system for one of the FRETSA houses.
“The shelter system would be the perfect place to be able to see who’s really trying,” she said. “ ... You’d want to get the right families in who will take that advantage and make it work for them.”
It is overwhelmingly complicated, though, Nevergold admitted.
“Who’s going to start it? Who’s going to sustain it?” she said. “It isn’t just something you say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’ It’s a huge undertaking to have a homeless shelter.”
Perhaps Ottawan Mark Hadsall is that person.
Plans and generosity
Because of Hadsall’s own experience with homelessness, he said, he’s organizing an effort to bring an overnight shelter to the area.
Although only in the beginning stages of the process, Hadsall said, he’s trying to secure financing, find a location and start spreading the word for a steering group to build a shelter.
“We need to give them a place to stay and get a healthy meal,” he said. “That’s what I’m planning: a nice warm place with showers to help people get on their feet again.
Hadsall previously was homeless himself, living with his wife in a motel while his four children lived with two different famlilies. He had just lost his job and thought it would only be for a month or so. It ended up being an entire year.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I didn’t like it at all, especially since we didn’t have the kids.”
Other agencies in Ottawa are doing their part, as well, to help in the struggle against homelessness.
“When Hope House and ECKAN have funds to put up a homeless family for a few nights, Knights Inn works with them so generously,” Gilliland said.
A homeless unit is available at Washburn Towers, Debby Lyder, manager, said, but has only been used once for a short time during the past six months.
“We’ve had a couple of calls, but when they find out that we do the background check, well ... if there’s any criminal background, we’re not able to allow them,” Lyder said.
Also, the unit is for only one person, not a family, which is where most interest lies, Lyder said.
To qualify to use the apartment, a person must be 55 or older or disabled, and also have a referral from a social service agency verifying he or she is homeless.
The 395-square-foot apartment currently sits vacant.
When it comes to collaborative entities, FRETSA has not worked alone, Gilliland said.
The agency works with Hope House, the Elizabeth Layton Center for Hope and Guidance, Communities in Schools and other social organizations to not only identify families in need, but also get them help.
Gilliland said the generosity of local businesses has been phenomenal — with people helping with everything from door locks for each new family and professional resume services to help families find jobs. But more is needed.
“What we really need is hard donations,” she said. “It’s just expensive. Especially with this last winter, the utility bills were sky high.”
FRETSA also is looking for additional board members, Gilliland said, which would be a perfect fit for those passionate about helping the homeless.
“Ottawa does have a homeless problem,” Gilliland said. “They really do. It’s a silent problem. We don’t see them under bridges and sleeping on sidewalks and all that. They’re crowded into homes. They’re living in hotel rooms, maybe eight and 10 in the same room. The homeless are here.”
And they are worth helping, Gilliland said.
“Regardless of how we have to struggle and scrounge for donations, it’s worth it if we can keep a family safe and in the job market and be contributing members of society,” Gilliland said.