Shelter director helps keep people in their homes

By The Mercury

About five months ago, a single mother of three faced eviction because of a delay in receiving a Section 8 voucher. The delay led the woman to be two and a half months behind on rent.

Emily Wagner, executive director of the Manhattan Emergency Shelter, decided the organization would use some of its funds to pay the overdue rent.

“That helped a mom and three little kiddos,” Wagner said. “Mom was able to keep her job. The family was able to keep their home and all their belongings, provide some stability for those kids.”

Section 8 is a federal program that helps low-income families pay for housing.

Wagner always knew she had a calling to help people. She initially thought she wanted to be a lawyer, but when she volunteered at the emergency shelter as a K-State student, she enjoyed the job so much she stayed.

Wagner was able to get a full time job as a student and has been working at the shelter since 2000. She graduated from K-State with a psychology degree in 2003.

In her 17 years at the shelter, Wagner has been an administrative assistant and the case management director, before becoming executive director six years ago. While her position now involves administrative work, including overseeing grants and managing staff, Wagner said she still takes on clients.

The shelter can house 47 people at a time and is usually at capacity. In 2016 the shelter housed more than 550 people.

The shelter also runs a prevention program to help keep people from being evicted, a rapid rehousing program that helps homeless people by paying a person’s deposit and first month of rent and supportive housing programs.

One supportive housing program places clients in housing for up to two years. A permanent housing program provides housing for clients with severe mental health issues.

The shelter has six family rooms, which she said are almost always full. Wagner said a lot of families with young children and infants stay there. Those who go to the shelter for help have experienced a lot of different situations including living with friends and family, being evicted, camping or living in cars.

The shelter is more than just a free place to stay, Wagner said. Clients are required to have a job and need to be willing to work to improve their living condition. She said most people seeking help want to fix their living situation.

“We see people more that are frustrated with their situation and feel like they have so many barriers against them it’s hard to know where to start,” Wagner said. “And that is what our case managers are there for, to help them see the bigger picture and to navigate their situation and give them a starting place.”

Wagner works with clients in the prevention program by helping them budget, sometimes finding cheaper alternatives to things like cell phone costs and cable television, so the client can afford to stay in their home. She also mediates with landlords to prevent people from being evicted.

Wagner said she most enjoys seeing children flourish while they’re staying at the shelter. A lot of the children that stay there have experienced trauma and crisis and sometimes have behavioral issues as a result.

Watching them get ready to leave the shelter is rewarding, Wagner said.

“I love seeing families being able to move out into their own place and giving them furniture and dishes and pots and pans and stuff to start their own place and have a new beginning,” she said.

Working at the shelter for so long has taught Wagner that everybody has a story. She said she tries to teach her staff to not be biased and to not judge their clients. “Everyone has a reason and a story for why they’re here and why they’ve made choices that they’ve made,” she said. “And it’s not our job to judge them based on those decisions. It’s our job to help them to make better decisions and to write a new story for themselves.” Wagner shares her administrative duties with Dené Kaster, the shelter’s grants and finance officer. Kaster said Wagner always makes sure the staff bases their work on helping people. Kaster said she handles more of the technical side of their job while Wagner responds more emotionally to the work they do. “She makes the shelter an enjoyable place to work,” Kaster said.

Kaster said in the four years she has worked at the shelter, Wagner has taught her how to be more understanding about people’s situations. If anyone is working on a difficult case, they go to Wagner for help, Kaster said.

“I just hope she never leaves,” she said.

Wagner said she has no intention of leaving her job or Manhattan anytime soon. With an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, Wagner said she spends most of her time outside of work at her children’s sporting events. Her family also spends a lot of time in the outdoors, boating and fishing and traveling. “We love this area and this community,” Wagner said.

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