Written by JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN Sentinel County Editor
Tuesday, 29 January 2013 10:55
Last week, as the temperatures dipped to single digits, a local family living in an unheated camper finally asked for help from the Salvation Army in Bowling Green.
The best the Salvation Army could offer the mother and her two daughters was information on homeless shelters in Toledo and Findlay.
"It's very difficult," said Salvation Army social service worker Rev. Bob Barr. "You hate to tell people there is nothing available, but there is really no other choice."
It's not rare for Barr to have to turn people away who are looking for temporary housing. Though it goes in spurts, there are some weeks when four or five families come in seeking shelter in a two-day period.
Often Barr can just give them lists of shelters outside Wood County.
"It's the only thing we have. There's nothing here for them," he said.
Part of the problem is that local block grant funding has been slashed for the Salvation Army's temporary hotel housing program. At one point, the annual funding was as high as $20,000, according to Barr. Last year the block grant from the city of Bowling Green was $12,000. This year, the funding was cut in half to $6,000.
"Money coming down the pipe is shrinking," he said.
Prior to this year, the Salvation Army used the funds to rent out two hotel rooms in Bowling Green at a discounted rate for local homeless people, who could spend up to a week in a room. Families with children are given priority ranking.
But due to an increase in the hotel rates and a decrease in grant funding, the $6,000 will not even pay for one hotel room for a full year.
Bowling Green Grants Administrator Tina Bradley explained that the homeless grant was just one of several areas that needed to be cut due to less federal funding coming to the city.
"We did have to make cuts everywhere," Bradley said. "It was a difficult decision. We certainly know there is a need."
However, Bradley noted that after tracking the use of the homeless grant, city officials questioned the effectiveness of the program.
"We looked at the usage," she said. Tracking the days when one of the hotel rooms was used showed that the rented room was empty 13 days in August of last year, eight days in June, and 24 days in February.
"I had to make the cut," Bradley said. "We want to be good stewards of our federal resources."
Bradley said the city challenged the Salvation Army to come up with a more efficient way of using the funding.
But Barr explained that it's not as simple as it may seem. The Salvation Army rents the room by the month in order to save money. And while the agency has constant waiting lists for the room, it is often impossible for Barr to reach those on the waiting list when the room opens up. Since their living situations can change on a daily basis, they are often difficult to contact, he explained.
As of Monday, Barr had six families on the waiting list, and the rented hotel room was occupied.
Barr noted that government funding recently shifted to preventing homelessness, rather than helping those already without a roof over their heads. While that sounds good on the surface, "there are people who need it now."
Most of the people who seek lodging through the Salvation Army have already been homeless for an average of five weeks. Some spend weeks "couch surfing" between the homes of friends and family. Barr recalled one family that crowded in with another family, adding up to 12 people in a one-bedroom home.
"I can't even begin to imagine that," he said.
Barr also hears from people who have tried to get by camping in local woods or living in barns.
"That makes the homeless in rural areas very hard to find," he said. "You don't normally run across them."
Barr is a member of a local group working on the homeless issue. Home Aid of Wood County's next meeting will be April 16 at 3 p.m., in St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Bowling Green.