Over the past five years, the number of people in our area experiencing homelessness has skyrocketed with higher property appraisals, taxes and utilities. Just this year, our local school district, USD 290, reported 197 precariously homeless students. ECKAN, our local community action agency and one of our United Way member agencies, reported working with more than 70 families struggling with homelessness. Each day as the weather grows colder, our United Way, churches and other agencies are inundated with desperate calls from residents seeking emergency shelter for the night. But eventually, those designated dollars for emergency hotel stays always dwindle to nothing well before spring and warmer temperatures arrive.

Once the money runs out, United Way of Franklin County donates much time and resources to driving homeless families to the nearest shelter 30 minutes away in neighboring Douglas County. This is very upsetting to families who have roots and possessions in Franklin County and are being dropped off in a completely different environment. Five years ago, we began searching for a solution. But this past summer, our go-to shelter in the neighboring county shut its doors to Franklin County residents because it no longer had the necessary funding and room for even its own residents.

Currently, we are working with community partners to open an emergency, temporary shelter in a nearby business when the weather is too brutal for a person to survive in a tent or car. We have seen the people in those tents and cars. We have heard them pleading for assistance. We want to open doors for the night, but this takes staffing. It also takes transportation, food, clothing, liability insurance, cots, blankets, toiletries and so many other resources. We have more than 30 community agencies all over the county, contributing time and resources for this project, which we are ready to launch on Dec. 3, if the weather turns bitter. How many days can we stay open? We want our residents to be safe all winter long, but we can only remain open if we have the resources.

Project funding will help save lives in Franklin County. After an emergency stay in our shelter, clients will be referred to our member agencies to try to move them into a more stable home in the county. Money for transportation, equipment, staff, training, clothing and food would be necessary for the long-term survival of this project. More money for those emergency hotel stays when blizzard conditions prevent volunteers from opening the shelter is crucial. Please consider helping our United Way with this vital community initiative.

Donations of any amount will help. When writing your check, please put the word “shelter” on the memo line. Donations may be sent to the United Way, P.O. Box 233, Ottawa, KS 66067. Or, consider becoming a sponsor in our Winter Olympics. Businesses would get great advertising for contributing to this urgent cause. Simply email me for more information at united.way.of.franklin.co@gmail.com or call 785-418-2015.

If you'd like to volunteer to spend the night at our emergency shelter alongside our United Way staff, visit the United Way office at 434 S. Main to pick up a background check form. We cannot open the shelter without volunteers willing to spend the night. You can also reach out to me with questions.

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