Service event draws a crowd

By Bryan Richardson

Even before the official 10 a.m. start, people began lining up for food being handed out as a part of the inaugural “Everybody Counts” event.

Members of the social services community came together at First United Methodist Church’s Harris Activity Center, 530 Poyntz Ave., to provide a 24-hour time period of service for those in need.

The event, which ends at 10 a.m. Thursday, includes a 24-hour resting and warming shelter (pets allowed overnight), shower facilities and necessities, sign-ups for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), dental check-ups for children, consultations with physicians and 24-hour crisis counseling from Pawnee Mental Health.

Harvesters Community Food Network provided 9,614 pounds of food.

Ashley Stites, agency service coordinator for Harvesters’ Topeka location, said the organization usually partners with individual churches and organizations in the area.

“It was really great to have an opportunity for everyone to come together to work on this scale,” she said.

Event planning began this fall after the USD 383 Board of Education heard a report on the district’s homeless program.

Patrick McLaughlin, associate pastor of missions and outreach at First United Methodist, said congregation members came to him after reading an article in The Mercury about the program.

He said members of the social service community soon began coming up with the concept.

“We started hashing out what we knew and what we thought needed to happen,” McLaughlin said. “We dreamed the idea of bringing all the social service agencies into one location for a 24-hour period.”

The planning led to 40 organizations being present and more than 60 volunteers on hand to help with the event.

Aaron Estabrook, a worker in the state’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program and a member of the USD 383 school board, said having a one-stop shop is important — considering the amount of services that are out there.

“I hear it over and over again from anybody that comes in to the Salvation Army that they can’t afford the gas, time, all the appointments and running around town to get a live person for services, and advice on how to navigate their crisis,” he said.

The event has been built around the annual Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Point-In-Time (PIT) count that captures a snapshot of homelessness.

“We just know the canvassing effort in this area doesn’t capture the true extent of the problem,” McLaughlin said. “We wanted another opportunity to have everyone counted, which lent itself to the name ‘Everyone Counts.’ ”

The count considers people in emergency shelters, transitional housing, unsheltered locations, housing with another family, medical treatment facility, and jail/corrections as a part of this count.

The PIT count for Riley County in 2013 showed 33 households and 52 individuals who would be considered homeless.

Those counted either lived in an emergency shelter or unsheltered locations.

Using similar criteria, USD 383 identified 239 homeless students last school year.

In the district, 72 percent of students defined as homeless shared housing with others, 20 percent are living in shelters and 8 percent fell into another category.

The number of homeless students identified in USD 383 is expected to exceed 250 this school year. District officials said there may be a similar number of homeless students who are not identified.

Along with the count will be a survey of the needs that have to be met.

Estabrook said it’s been more than 20 years since Manhattan has done a needs assessment.

He said the Riley County Seniors’ Service Center received a grant to do this assessment in conjunction with several agencies.

“We can use that data to take to community leaders and show them where the needs are, so we can target our limited funds where the greatest need is,” he said.

Estabrook said many people don’t realize how situations such as unemployment, mental health issues and homelessness can spiral into each other.

“They don’t realize the depth and spectrum of needs,” he said.

Estabrook said he’s always surprised by the amount of working poor who are struggling to get housed.

“There’s no one path to finding yourself in a crisis,” he said. “The spectrum is very large. It can affect anybody.”

Prior to the start of the event, officials wondered how many people would show up.

“We knew early on that there was a chance that the folks we’re trying to serve may not show up,” McLaughlin said. “There’s a trust barrier with marginalized populations. There’s a barrier for some people to come into the church.”

McLaughlin said the event is also important to bring the social service community together.

He said this is important for collaboration opportunities.

“With funding opportunities being limited, there’s always competition among the organizations,” McLaughlin said. “It can get really unhealthy when the clinic is competing with the Breadbasket for city grants.”

A debriefing will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 5 at First United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall after the weekly community meal.

McLaughlin said that meeting would offer an opportunity for service providers and those who use those services to come together to discuss the next steps.

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