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More are ‘living on the edge'

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By Amy Ryffel-Kragh

With a dwindling economy to blame there is an ever-growing number of homeless people and at-risk residents in Marion County. The recent increase of people needing assistance and shelter is keeping organizations like  the Salvation Army of Marion County and the Annie Johnson Senior Services very busy.

Alice Hodgkins, director of the Center for Hope at the Salvation Army of Marion County, has seen an increase in single men at the shelter. She attributes the increased male population to job losses.

Some of the new faces around the shelter recently have somewhat surprised Hodgkins. She described a clean-cut older gentleman who recently showed up to the downtown shelter looking for a warm blanket and jacket. “This man does not look homeless,” she said to herself, but he is.

While helping more people due to economic issues, the shelter has also seen an increase in male visitors during the recent cold snap. “It’s just been crazy,” she said. The shelter normally serves about 40 men on a daily basis.

But, during one of the colder nights, Hodgkins said there were 38 more men, who needed a warm place to sleep. “We try not to turn anybody away,” said Major Otis Childs, corps officer for the Salvation Army of Marion County.

When the temperature outside drops below 40 degrees, The Salvation Army opens a cold night shelter. The Army had 973 individuals stay at least one night in their shelter in 2008

More families

Though the Salvation Army has seen an increase in men, the Annie Johnson Senior Service center in Dunnellon has seen a growing number of homeless families. “The numbers are up there,” said Christine Avina, chairman of the board for Annie Johnson Senior Services, of the growing homeless population in the area.

To combat the problem locally, the Annie Johnson Center started Project Homeless in July 2008. When a single person or family comes through the door, the center starts making phone calls to various groups that provide temporary shelter. “We do everything for them,” said Darlene Parker, executive director of Annie Johnson.

Since its conception, Project Homeless has seen about a 50 to 60 percent increase in those needing help, Parker said, with the largest boost in families. Recently a family of five, who had been living out of their vehicle, recently came to Annie Johnson looking for help.

In addition, to help out the homeless population while the center is closed, the Dunnellon Police Department and Marion County Sheriff’s Office carry around bags filled with soap, bottle water, a washcloth and other essential items in their patrol vehicles. Avina said they have tents and bedrolls in their cars available to the homeless also.

‘Living on the Edge’

Helping to aid organizations like the Salvation Army and Annie Johnson Center is the Marion County Homeless Council. The organization has the task of being the lead agency and providing a “continuum of care” for homeless people.

Dave Fullarton, executive director of the Homeless Council, said the state of Florida requires each county to have a lead continuum of care program. The council’s primary role is “coordination of homeless agencies programs and activities.”

For example, the council assists the Annie Johnson center, which is a member of the council, with money for food and utility bills for its clients.

In addition to assisting members, the agency also helps their own clients. The organization aids them by paying a rent, mortgage or utility bill, which is part of the program’s “prevention” effort.

But it is not a long-term solution to the clients’ problems. The council will only pay a rent or utility bill, if it will get the person out of debt. In other words, the program does not do “Band-Aids.” “We want to solve the problem,” he said. All of the grants they have require that the people can sustain themselves after the organization has given them assistance.

The program has followed up with many of the people and families they helped in 2008. After they shelled out $60,000 in mortgage payments, 100 percent of the people were still in those homes six months later.

As for the people who received assistance with rent and utility bills, 85 percent of them were still in their homes half a year later. The other 15 percent could not be located.

The United Way agency started taking applications on Nov. 15, 2008 for mortgage and rent assistance. By Dec. 15 the program had to stop accepting them after receiving about 400 applications.

Since then, “it hasn’t gotten better,” he said of the amount of people needing help, “we’re overwhelmed.” Fullarton said there are many families in Marion County “living on the edge.”

Homeless Census

The council is currently compiling its 2009 census of the homeless in Marion County. On Jan. 30, the program conducted a point in time survey, which allows them to count how many people are homeless in the county.

They began by counting people in emergency and transitional housing. The organization will continue to compile data over the next four- to six weeks at places like soup kitchens and medical facilities.

Fullarton said he expects to count to show 1,500 homeless people. However he estimates that there is approximately 4,000 to 4,500 homeless people living in Marion County. The Council operates on grants, donations and will soon begin a fundraising effort.

For more information about the Marion County Homeless Council, call 454-7760 or visit www.mchcfl.org. To contact the Annie Johnson Senior Services, call 489-8021. For more information on the Salvation Army, call 629-2004.

E-mail Amy Ryffel-Kragh at akragh@riverlandnews.com.