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October 15th, 2019

stepping stone presentationStepping Stone Shelter Director Bambi Jones shows some stats about homelessness in the U.S. Wednesday afternoon at a public meeting at Memorial Library. L&T photo/Robert PierceROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times


Most people live in a home of their own or a rental property and likely do not understand what it is like to be homeless.

Recently, officials with Liberal’s homeless shelter, Stepping Stone Shelter, began looking for a new location for its home, and in that process, Director Bambi Jones said it was noticed many in the community were not as aware of the shelter as expected.

For this reason, Wednesday at Memorial Library, Stepping Stone hosted the first of what Jones hopes will be several public meetings to educate people about the shelter.

Jones started by giving the shelter’s mission statement.

“We’re a temporary shelter, and we want to provide, through our resources, permanent housing for the homeless,” she said.

Jones said many people think the shelter is a place anyone can come and stay for the night and then leave, but she said there is so much more to it.

“The shelter used to be open 24 hours a day,” she said. “Now, it closes at 9 and reopens at 6:30 in the morning. However, if we have some who comes in at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, she’ll be able to check them in.”

Homelessness is a nationwide problem, with half a million reported homeless on any given night in the U.S. in 2018. From 2007 to 2017, the numbers decreased to only 14 percent of the population, but Jones said the number has gone up by 1 percent since then and is gradually going up again.

The director said 65 percent of those without a home stayed in a shelter such as Stepping Stone.

“There’s temporary emergency housing everywhere, and there’s transitional housing,” she said. “If they’re in emergency shelter transitional housing, they’re still considered homeless. If they’re in prison, they’re considered homeless unless they’re there more than 90 days. If they’re living in a hotel, they’re considered homeless unless they’ve been there 90 days.”

Jones said the number of people in families is on the rise for homelessness, as are the figures for the chronically homelessness.

“There is a difference between someone who is just homeless and someone who’s chronically homeless,” she said. “Chronically homeless is homeless more than a year, and they keep that pattern because their risks are higher.”

Unlike the past, though, Jones said the number of homeless veterans has gone down substantially.

“There’s only 37,000,” she said. “In the last two years, it’s gone down 50 percent. That’s because there’s more veterans programs out there.”

Figures for homeless youth, Jones said, are on the rise, however.

“In the homeless population, youth is 25 and under,” she said. “It’s getting up there, and a lot of the youth, there having trouble with being unsheltered. A lot of shelters won’t take them unless they’re 18 and emancipated from their parents.”

One particular population Jones talked about in her presentation is those in mental health institutions, and she said shelters such as Stepping Stone can make a difference there.

“It improves their mental and physical health because we have them inside and have them sheltered, and we’re resourcing them out for that stuff,” she said.

Jones said the role her shelter can play with the populations of mental health patients is critically important due to the high number of homeless people they make up.

“If they have nowhere to go and we have no shelter, it can cause a problem in the community,” she said. “They don’t know where to start to get their help most of the time, so they need agencies like us in the community to point them in the right direction to get them that help they need.”

Something Jones said many people are misled about is the reason people are homeless.

“I know we hear a lot of homelessness is caused by people being addicted to drugs and alcohol,” she said. “That actually only makes up 10 percent of the population, 9 percent this year. Most of the time, the loss of a job or loss of income, that’s your highest percentage – 35 percent.”

Jones said officials are finding cost of living is simply too high for some, but all of the statistics are not available at this time.

“They’re doing more and more,” she said.

Jones said many people also think homelessness is just a problem in urban cities, and she said a large part of the population is made up of those towns.

“California is on a big rise for homeless population,” she said. “Chicago, there, they have 82,000 people who are homeless, just in that one city.”

Jones said statistics show, though, rural America does make up 7 percent of the homeless population, but that number can too be misleading.

“My shelter is the only shelter like its kind in the Southwest Kansas region,” she said. “There’s one in Garden, and it’s a five-day shelter. There’s one in Dodge, and it’s a three-day shelter. Out here, we do the 30-plus days, but when it comes to this count, our sheriff’s departments, our police departments, they don’t get out in town and do the unsheltered. That number’s being missed, and they’re finding out when it comes to the rural area of homelessness, they’re finding people in barns, out in fields where they’ve created their own little area. That number is increasing also, but it’s very hard to get.”

Jones said this means rural areas such as Southwest Kansas have a bigger problem than many people tend to think.

She said in addition to helping the homeless, Stepping Stone does much to help with the Liberal community.

“We improve the community through permanent housing and employment,” she said. “When they come stay with us and start our program, we teach them or get them back into doing that. It improves the permanent housing and employment for them, but it also improves economy wise for the city of Liberal. That’s always a plus for having a shelter.”

Jones said a shelter likewise creates unity in a community.

“I truly believe in this because if everybody is coming together and supporting a homeless shelter, you’re making your city so much better, and you’re unifying your city,” she said.

Stepping Stone, Jones said, also helps keep crime and drugs off the streets.

“We do see a lot of them who have felonies, misdemeanors,” she said. “When they come into the shelter, we start working on that stuff.”

Something other shelters may not have is an employment center, and Jones said this is one of the first things Stepping Stone got when she became director about four years ago.

“The rules used to be that every resident had to be out of the shelter from 9 to noon and 1 to 5,” she said. “When you’re dealing with the demographics we’re dealing with and their lives, that’s not always the best thing for them.”

Jones said the employment center allows shelter employees to better help residents with filling out applications and resumés.

Something else Stepping Stone has that is different from other shelters is a thrift store. Jones said the store, currently located in Plains, is expected to be moved to Liberal, and it is not simply a means for the shelter to get income, but also a way to partner with other agencies within the community.

Jones said Stepping Stone, above all else, changes the thought process of homeless people about things they need to do to sustain a permanent living.

“You cannot be out there, running in the streets and getting into trouble at 12, 1 o’clock at night and expect to keep your job you’re not showing up for at 7 o’clock in the morning,” she said.

Residents are required to do community service, and Jones said she tells her residents this is because Stepping Stone is available because of the community it calls home.

“If you’re in here and you’re using these services, it’s only good if you give back to the community who’s giving to you,” she said. “Without our community, we wouldn’t have places like this.”

Just as many believe it takes a village to raise a child, Jones said it literally takes a community to make a shelter run.

“I can be the executive director all day long,” she said. “I can have a staff. I can have a board, but if we don’t have the community, it won’t work. It takes everyone to be able to do this.”

And Jones said the help the community provides is extremely beneficial to Stepping Stone’s residents.

“The more people you’re helping maintain permanent lifestyle, you are helping your community,” she said. “You’re helping in ways people don’t even know they’re helping.”

There were several community members on hand for Wednesday’s meeting, and Jones said she was surprisingly pleased at the numbers for the initial edition of the community meetings.

“I’m really shocked at the turnout,” she said. “I think it went very well.”

Jones said other meetings are already in the works, including one at noon on Oct. 17.

“We’re going to be changing up the meetings we have between testimonies, statistics and letting people know what’s going on in the community,” she said. 

Jones said she hopes those who come to the meetings get much out of them.

“I do hope they’ll get awareness – awareness of what the shelter is, who we are, what we do, who we help,” she said. “We do help more than just the homeless.”

Jones said the process of finding a new building for the shelter is still in progress.

“We have our eye on one, and hopefully, it gets there,” she said.

Jones too wants to give people more information about the shelter at future meetings.

“I hope to provide more statistics about the shelter itself,” she said. “I hope to provide more testimonies about how people are doing in the shelter and doing well and giving positive information to deter the negative thought process that goes with the homeless shelter.”

As a new home is sought, Jones said getting people educated about Stepping Stone is a vital process.

“It’s going to be vital to what we’re doing in the community, what we’re providing in the community and who we’re helping in the community,” she said. “It’s going to be vital for those who are contributing to the shelter. It’s going to be vital for everyone who donates anything from clothes to financial help. It’s going to be important for the community itself as a whole.”

Stepping Stone’s building at 1015 N. Washington currently houses a men’s dorm with 15 beds. Jones said the shelter is made up of predominately men, but the number of families and women is also on the rise.

“We have three family rooms, which sleeps four to five,” she said. “There’s two sets of bunk beds in there. One bed is a full, so it can hold a mother and a father and three kids, or it can hold four women, four men. Over the last year, we’ve had more women and more families, and we just don’t have room for all of them.”

This means Stepping Stone can now house about 33 residents, and Jones estimated a new building could have room for about 50 to 75.

Though she was unsure of how Stepping Stone compared to other shelters, Jones did say the local shelter is quite effective for its use.

“In one month, we can have a 75 percent success rate as far as employment goes,” she said. “Housing is a little bit harder to track. Sometimes, they just up and leave, but those are things we’re hoping to grow in. I would like to think we’re very successful just because we are 30 days more so than three or five days.”

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