We see it so much we don’t notice it. Homelessness doesn’t happen in the hills, so we don’t think much about when we stop at the red light and see a family of three, man, woman, and baby, walking across the road.
We don’t internalize that the man is carrying two trash bags full of what has to be the entirety of their belongings. We don’t notice that the baby is way too small for the umbrella stroller and she’s only wearing a jacket, while we sit in our cars, heat full blast and wearing gloves. The whole family clearly needs showers, a hearty meal and a warm place to sleep, but right now they’re walking God-knows-where through the middle of town and the temperature has been well below freezing all day.
Honestly, I didn’t know homelessness was as big of a problem as it is until I went to the Lakefront Church of God to cover their then-upcoming Harvest Festival. The church, which also serves as a food bank, medical office, job placement program, and so much more, deals with people in need. While they are not a homeless shelter, Jeff Tackett, secretary for the church, said they deal with it more than most would believe.
“You wouldn’t believe how people are living,” Tackett said. “We have people in this county living in campers in the woods, with no electricity or running water. Sleeping in tents and sheds. Families with children. People are in need in this county.”
All in all, Tackett said they know of nine families living in campers in Magoffin County right now with no electricity or running water.
“I have a special computer system to track their individual needs, so if I go on there and it says ‘no electricity,’ we can give them heater meals so they can still eat hot food without compromising their living quarters,” Tackett said. “We can give blankets, refer some families for the winter weatherization program through the Christian Appalachian Project, which we are now partners with, but we need a homeless shelter in this town.”
Of the nine families they’re tracking and trying to help, Tackett said there’s approximately 11 kids involved, ages six months to 15 years old.
But the problem is bigger than that.
“In reality, the truth is, if you are sleeping in a tent, a park or under a bridge, that’s homelessness, but we’ve got tons of kids couch hopping, and that’s a form of homelessness, too,” Tackett said. “We need to educate ourselves to the problem so we can start properly addressing their needs.”
While drugs, alcohol and the economy are known factors to the issue, Tackett said the greatest problem homeless people have is mental health.
“It’s compounded by the drugs and alcohol issue, but really it’s the underlying mental health issue,” Tackett said. “We need to be more conscious of what it means to be homeless, and sometimes we’re not.”
He highlighted how many homeless people are hiding in plain sight in Magoffin.
“Drive by the old nursing home around 2 or 3 at night and see the older men gathered around the barrels,” he said.
Tackett told us about how they’ve received calls from people late at night, needing help dealing with drug addiction or thoughts of suicide, and sometimes homeless people just show up there.
“People drop them off like dogs,” Tackett said. “We’re not a shelter, so we can’t really house them here, but I’ll get on the phone with the shelter and try to find them transport.”
Currently, the nearest shelter, WestCare Emergency Shelter, is located in Pikeville. Tackett said the largest problem they have is finding people transportation to get the help they need, though.
“The sad part is when we do find a homeless person, we can locate a bed, but in this county, no law enforcement or government agency will transport them to Pikeville,” Tackett said. “It’s bad that we have a dog catcher that will take dogs to the shelter, but they can’t take a human being to a homeless shelter. We’ve got to do something.”
Given the current economy and Magoffin’s status as the county with the highest unemployment rate, Tackett said homelessness is not too far removed from most people in this county.
“Most everyone is one pay check from being homeless,” he said. “If they don’t have a family member or someone they can stay with, what happens then?”
Tackett said there is hope, with other communities trying out the tiny home initiative, a housing and rehabilitation program to get families off the streets and back in the workforce within six months, but Magoffin has a long way to go.
“This area is economically depressed, and drugs and the abuse of drugs are a product of a poor economy,” Tackett said. “But if people can break the cycle of poverty, it will have to depend on employment.”
Ideally, Tackett said Magoffin needs a community emergency shelter, set up to house people, train them to be employable, provide transport, get them back in the work force, and help them break the cycle of drug addiction and extreme poverty.
He said last summer six people were dropped off in Magoffin, either through the drug pipeline, or just to get away from crime-ridden cities, and ended up on the streets here.
“Where do you go for transportation?” Tackett asked. “At least in cities you have trains and buses, but here, you end up walking 40 miles down the road, looking for a barn to sleep in. It’s a no-win situation when it comes to this and I don’t know what the answer is. I know town here is eat up with the unimaginable.”
Rita Cole and her husband started “God’s Closet” out of their home in order to take donated items – clothing, furniture, etc., and get it in the hands of those in need, starting the project after losing her brother to the homelessness problem.
“My brother lived in Lexington in homeless shelters for quite a few years, and wouldn’t let anyone in the family help him,” Cole remembered. “I actually drove down there and tried to get him to come back with me, but he wouldn’t come here and live with us. He just said he had friends, but he died on the streets there – froze to death.”
Cole said there was a cop there that took him to jail several times to get him off the streets on the really cold nights, but the ended up finding him behind a bank, curled around a heat pump.
“We’re trying to get a homeless shelter here so that won’t happen to anyone else,” Cole said.
“Not long ago we had a guy that had to sleep in the fire department for the night,” Cole said. “Someone had wired him money, but we couldn’t get anyone to transport him to Paintsville.”
Cole said the lack of a shelter for the community, as well as having no hotels in town, puts people at risk, even if they’re just traveling through and their car breaks down, or their home burns down.
“There’s no hotel here, and no transportation to take them to a town that does have one, so where do these people go?” Cole asked.
Cole also highlighted that subsidized housing has extremely long waiting lists and requires people to pass background checks, which often keeps people on the streets longer.
“it’s very probable that Magoffin doesn’t have the amount of subsidized housing to meet the needs f the community,” Cole said.
She said there are plenty of people living homeless in Salyersville.
“If you look close enough, they’re here in our town and there’s no help for them,” Cole said. “Have someone die on the street – a family member. You’re broken hearted and don’t want to see that happen to anyone else.”
Tackett said first the community needs to determine that homelessness is a problem that has to be cured, and that there has to be compassion for the people affected.
The next step, Tackett explained, would be for a group to be formed, with a board, to address the problem. They would have to apply for tax exemption status (a 501c3). Then, and only then, they would be able to apply for grants to create a facility and transportation to accommodate the community’s needs.
“There has to be a change for these people because the truth is we can be those people,” Tackett said. “We don’t want to be known as a town with a parkway and no way out.”
Carolyn Isaac, with the Magoffin County Health Department, told the Independent, “Most of our data for homelessness is inaccurate as our people tend to stay in places they are not wanted rather than the streets. Many are mistreated and forced to do whatever they have to in order to have shelter. These are hundreds of people. Our closest shelter is Pikeville. Rarely do our people go there. In all my years of work I know of one couple and one man who used the Pikeville shelter.”
As for people in need right now, there are some options. Lakefront Church of God (in the former Middle Fork Elementary school site) provides multiple services for the homeless and poor in the community. With long office hours, someone is generally around to answer phone calls even late at night (phone number, 606-349-6301).
The WestCare Emergency Shelter in Pikeville can be contacted directly at 606-432-9442, or in cases of domestic violence, Turning Point Domestic Violence Services are available at 1-800-649-6605.
Veterans seeking house, resources, or assistance can contact their local Veterans Affairs center, or contact Mountain Comprehensive Care’s Veterans Transitional Housing Center at 606-639-3178.
Mountain Comprehensive Care has two programs, the Home Team and the Housing Program, which both can be reached by calling the main office line at 606-886-8572.
Licking River Baptist Church, located in the former Salyer Elementary School, has started a Koinonia Mission Center in the old school, provides winter weatherization, builds ramps and decks, home repair, and food for those in need of a “hand up.”
Pastor of the church, Richard Greene, said if people need help, to call Licking River Baptist Church at 606-884-7605.
“If they’re in our area, we’ll help as much as we can, but if not, we’ll help them find a church or resource to help them up. We’re trying to build a Christian network of resources.”
In Magoffin, the Christian Appalachian Project has a housing program, elderly services, summer camp, in-home respite services and family advocacy services. For more information on their programs, go to http://www/christianapp.org/our-impact/our-services-interactive-map.
Scottie Bentley, with the University of Kentucky’s Targeted Assessment Program (KTAP), said they contract with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, “providing a free service to people in Magoffin County to assist people in identifying and addressing barriers to self-sufficiency. I complete a holistic assessment with the participant and look into Mental Health, Substance Use, Intimate Partner Violence Victimization and Learning Problems. Provide referral, pre-treatment, service coordination and follow-up services. I assisted people with obtaining housing in Magoffin County related to homelessness and housing related to domestic violence.”
In order to be eligible for KTAP, clients must have at least one dependent child and a family income at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. People can contact Bentley by stopping by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services office in Salyersville (across from the court house and between Grover Arnett’s office and the Community Action Program), or call 606-349-3122 ext. 0011420120.
The Big Sandy Area Community Action Program (BSACAP), which can be contacted locally by calling 606-349-2217, provides LIHEAP and assist people in signing up for any low-income programs that utility companies may have. They also have a Weatherization Assistance Program that can help to ensure that low-income home owners have a working heater and proper insulation in their homes. Families that have received assistance from the WAP save approximately $945 annually on home heating and cooling costs.
Individuals and families who find themselves homeless can sign-up for Tenant-Based Rental Assistance with BSACAP, which can help them find a safe place and get back on their feet. There is a waiting list for this program at present.
As Greene said, it is really important that those in need take the step of asking for help – either from a local church, government agency or volunteer group.
“We’re just trying to serve and be a light to a dark world,” Greene said.