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Homeless seek jobs, not stigma

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

Spotting the homeless seems like an easy task. They're single men, huddled under bridges or railroad overpasses, taking swigs from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. They'd rather use handouts to support their addictions than find jobs to support themselves.

But local shelter directors say that image doesn't always reflect the reality of homelessness.

Nationally, about 30 percent of sheltered homeless people are children, while people in families represent nearly 36 percent of all homeless people, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

Two area shelters that cater only to single women or women with children have no shortage of applicants, most of whom are intent on helping themselves.

"They're just like you and me. The difference is, I have a great family that required me to go to college. My family didn't have alcohol or drug issues," said Kara Colburn, director of the Mayfield Lighthouse. "(The residents) are brilliant women who are healthy. They have areas they need to work on, but so do I."

Take shelter resident Laura Canup, 32. She always figured she'd be working until the day she died, but she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2010. The associated pain and muscle spasms made it too difficult to continue working her job of six years at a small-engine store in Murray.

"The one thing you know how to do is taken away from you," she said of losing her job. "So I battled with depression for the longest time."

Two years after she lost her job, Canup ran out of money and had to leave her apartment in Benton. Canup stayed with a friend briefly, and then came Lighthouse last August. After spending two years on a waiting list for a housing voucher, Canup now waits for an affordable apartment to open up. She said staying at the Lighthouse was probably the biggest blessing she's ever received.

"Here I get all the support I need," she said. "It's not really a shelter to me. It's a home."

The Lighthouse, a Christian nonprofit, accepts women with children as old as 12 and focuses on securing employment, transportation and housing for its residents. Canup represents one of the many women who've benefitted from this type of help, but many in the area don't get that chance.

Colburn says she has to turn away applicants every day. Sometimes, they're not a good fit for the shelter because they don't fit the guidelines: no current addicts and no teenagers. But often, the eight beds at the shelter are simply full, as they had been for 60 straight days last Thursday.

It's the same story at shelters all over the area. Regardless of what demographic they house, there are almost always too many people and not enough beds.

Heidi Suhrheinrich, executive director of Paducah Cooperative Ministry, says people in Paducah don't realize homelessness is such a problem because it looks different in small towns. Here, homeless people are more likely to find temporary housing with friends or family than they are to sleep on park benches. Two or three families then find themselves living in single-family homes, creating an unstable situation that can lead to eviction. And that leads back to homelessness.

PCM has run its shelter in Paducah for 24 years, and its goals are much the same as those of the Lighthouse. Those involved with the shelter - including Suhrheinrich, Shelter Director Sheila Forrest, and Homeless Housing and Case Manager Candace Melloy - emphasize that not even they are immune to the causes of homelessness.

This has become even more clear in the days since May 6, when PCM received word that it will have to vacate the seven units it leases from the Paducah Housing Authority. Forrest, a 17-year employee of the shelter, lives on site, where she serves as a cheerleader, life coach and occasional firefighter for the residents. When the shelter closes, Forrest will be in the same boat as many of the women she's helped.

"Quite frankly, if we lose the shelter, me and my weekend staff, we will be homeless," Forrest said.

The women at PCM say they've housed high school students and women with more than one master's degree. Disasters, divorce or breakup, job loss and dozens of other factors lead women to seek help at PCM.

"We've crossed every socioeconomic line with people in the shelter. Most people assume everyone in the shelter is jobless ... and it's just not true," Forrest said.

Shelter staff concede they receive their fair share of people who refuse to play by the rules. And some would-be residents admit they're not mere victims of circumstance.

"I'm paying for what I did," said Kim Miller, a recovering alcoholic who recently came to PCM to look for help. "I'm not trying to feel sorry for myself."

Miller served time in jail and been through rehab. She's been out for four years now and hopes to complete her college education. She dreams of working for a nonprofit or as a reporter or a photographer.

"I'm going to school, period. I don't care if I have to sleep in the classroom. I'm finishing, and that's that," she said.

 But Miller has found that sheer determination doesn't solve everything. She says that's the reason why people in her situation - those who have made mistakes, but who are trying to turn their lives around - need a hand.

"You're told your past doesn't have to define you, then you get out and fall on hard times ... and there's no help," she said. "Everyone thinks we do this to ourselves, that we deserve what we get, but at what point in time do I have to quit paying for my past?"

PCM and Lighthouse are the only shelters in western Kentucky that cater exclusively to single women and children without considering their domestic violence background. Now that PCM is closing, Colburn said, Lighthouse has been bracing to receive more calls.

PCM staff say they're not sure what the future holds now that they have to move. They will continue to refer people to other shelters - often as far away as Louisville or Nashville, Tenn., - and will try to find beds in their Fresh Start House, a transitional facility for women returning to society after incarceration. But one thing is certain for the teams at both shelters. 

"We are committed to provide homeless services in whatever way we can. This is not going to stop us," Suhrheinrich said.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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