Archive for Thursday, November 29, 2007

Retired professor hopes to help ‘hidden homeless’

November 29, 2007

After former Kansas University business professor and current Eudora resident Joe Reitz retired from teaching in May 2006, he became the CEO for the LEO Center in Lawrence, which is a consortium of churches that helps the needy with medical care. Though he was always aware that there were homeless people in Lawrence, working at the LEO Center opened his eyes.

"I became aware that there was a real problem with homeless families in Lawrence," he said. "We kept getting mostly single moms in here with their kids and we could give them medical treatment and some food and little money and some counseling, but they didn't have any place to stay."

Lawrence has two homeless shelters, but Reitz said that the shelters weren't always fit for families, and that's because families aren't as visible as other homeless people and in many cases.

"Homeless families are kind of the hidden homeless," he said. "They're not hanging out on the sidewalks bumming stuff and sleeping in doorways."

Through discussions with people working at the LEO Center, Reitz came to the conclusion that if Lawrence was unable to tackle the problem of homeless families, then the church should.

He stumbled upon Interfaith Hospitality Networks, which is a nationwide program that helps homeless families become independent, rather than returning to the same shelter each day.

"It's a low cost, volunteer intensive program -- it's not a shelter."

It starts with about 12 to 13 churches agreeing to be host congregations, wherein they would provide food and a place for up to four families to stay for one week out of every three months.

After children were bussed to school and parents with jobs were taken to work in a van that the program would purchase, families then would go to a day center location. The day center director would enroll families in any state-funded programs that they are eligible for and work to help find them employment or a permanent living situation. Medical care also would be provided by the LEO Center.

While in the program, an adult must work to find a job and or permanent housing and must put 50 percent of each paycheck into a savings account.

"There are a lot of people who are working really hard," Reitz said. "They're not homeless because they want to be. You take a family and maybe both parents are working for minimum wage. They're doing OK and then one of them gets sick or gets hurt or laid off and then all of a sudden, they're on the street.

"They need to be able to get ahead. And in this program, they build up a nest egg and get some training in how to handle their finances."

Reitz estimates that nearly 14 volunteers would be needed to staff each church.

"Anyone can volunteer and not have to spend too much time doing it," he said. "A lot of people are scared of the homeless, but here you go into a church and it's a much less threatening environment and you can spend as little as two hours every three months and still make a contribution."

The hope is that a family would stay in the program for about two months. Families would be referred into the program by churches, schools, or state agencies.

"Before people come in the programs, we screen them pretty thoroughly because we've got children involved," Reitz said. "People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol or are abusive have to go into some kind of treatment program. We try to be pretty selective."

Reitz said that the program cost about $60,000 to $80,000 to get started and estimates that it would cost about $130,000 to maintain, which he believes are both cost effective figures. He hopes to get the program up and running by the time school starts in 2008.

At a presentation Wednesday night, Reitz met with nearly 20 churches from Eudora and Lawrence area to talk about the program.

"I was really pleased by the turnout and the response," he said.

He will meet again with churches on Jan. 10 at the First Baptist Church, 1330 Kasold Dr, to try to set up a timetable and get more firm commitments.

He also knows that this won't completely correct homelessness, but it's a good place to start.

"It's a huge problem to tackle, and we're just taking a piece of it," Reitz said. "We're not solving the homeless problem, but if we can take care of families, then that frees up the city to try to take care of other parts of the homeless problem."

The program, which has a proven track record with a success rate of 70 percent, has been in Olathe for three years now. It has served 33,000 meals, accounted for 11,000 guest nights and had 34 families graduate and only one go back on street.

"That success rate is what attracted me," Reitz said. "It's not a theory. I was an academic, but I'm too old for theories now. Give me something that works."

For more information about the proposed Interfaith Hospitality Network program, visit www.familypromise.org.

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