Nearly 150 people gathered Tuesday night at a public forum to give feedback on a proposed homeless shelter in Washington.
The forum was held at the Washington City Council Chamber, but was sponsored by the Franklin County Homeless Task Force (HTF).
Task force members opened the forum with a presentation on how a shelter would operate.
The proposed shelter will be named The Bridge, which was described as a one-stop shop.
“(It’s) a center for discovering your way home,” said Annie Foncannon, a task force member and Franklin County Children and Families Community Resource board member. “It’s a hand up, not a handout.”
The shelter’s proposed location is at 10 Franklin Ave., the former office of Dr. David Brunworth and Dr. Tim Baker, and before that Dr. Sam Farrell.
The Bridge would offer classes on developing soft skills for employment, how to get a job, how to make groceries stretch and things to know as a renter. The shelter also would provide access to computers and the internet for people to use to find jobs and places to live.
The facility would be able to accommodate three to four families and 12-15 individuals. It will be a 501(c)(3) organization.
The task force is still in the process of forming a board of directors.
At The Bridge, the guests will have to follow a code of conduct and rules to be able to stay. Before checking in, guests will have to sign a waiver stating they know what the consequences are if the code of conduct or rules are not followed.
Guests will be allowed to stay 30 days, but would have the opportunity to extend their stay by following the rules, obtaining goals and helping out around the facility.
“We will work with people as long as they are willing to work for themselves,” Foncannon said.
If a guest has been kicked out or they leave before their 30 days is up, that guest will not be able to return for 30 days on the first offense. Foncannon said this practice has been widely successful in other shelters.
“We can’t do this alone,” she added, noting it’s important to build a community around the homeless so they don’t slip back into their old ways.
Foncannon also addressed comments she has heard, such as “if you build it, they will come.”
“They’re already here,” she said. “We have a lot of families in Washington that need our help.”
Foncannon addressed concerns of homeless people in St. Louis coming here if a shelter is opened. She noted the amount of resources in the city is far greater than would be provided in Washington.
“They’re not going to come here to get less services,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Foncannon acknowledged that some residents may agree that a shelter is needed, but they don’t necessarily want it in their backyard.
She said the task force is proud of the Washington community and the shelter would represent that.
“We’ll ensure it looks welcoming,” she said, adding loitering will not be tolerated and a privacy fence will be installed so the guests will be able to go outside while staying “hidden from sight.”
Foncannon also addressed concerns of property value decreasing in that area and crime rates going up. She noted that homeless are sometimes victims of crimes because they are easy targets.
She also stated that studies conducted in big cities on both areas of concern have found that neither is true.
The Bridge is not designed for just any homeless person, she said, but for those who are trying to better themselves and become a contributing member of the community.
Foncannon added that she’s no stranger to the homeless people who aren’t trying to better themselves.
“If you think they don’t tick us off as much as they tick you off, you’re wrong,” she said.
Another member of the task force, Lindsey Jasper, explained that many of the homeless in Washington are already working. Some make enough to pay a hotel weekly fee, others couch hop, park their cars in various locations each night, sleep in tents, dumpsters, garages and storage sheds.
“They lack the skills and resources for how to get back on their feet,” Jasper said, “and many want to get back on their feet.”
Many organizations around Washington already try to help homeless people as much as they can. One of those being the Harvest Table.
Karen Dawson, president of the Harvest Table, said the group hosts a dinner every Saturday night for anyone, no questions asked.
“We’ll also give (them) something to take home,” she said.
Dawson shared the story of a woman she saw crying one night. When she asked if there was anything she could do to help, the woman explained she had an interview the following Monday, but didn’t have the resources to take a shower and didn’t have clothing to wear to the interview.
Dawson paid for a two-night hotel room for the woman and her husband. Through a community effort, she also was able to provide the clothes the woman needed and she got the job.
Prior to that, the couple was living in a dumpster. Now, they have their own apartment and are doing well, she said.
Dawson said the woman thanked her for “seeing” her when no one else did. “These people really just want to be recognized,” she said.
Dawson also noted that cheap apartments are hard to come by in Washington and through The Bridge the community would be able to provide a place for the homeless to become human again.
“Homelessness is never really wanted,” she said. “They have stories to tell, (they’re) just different stories.”
Since its inception, the Harvest Table has helped many people in Washington, according to Washington Police Chief Ed Menefee, who also serves on the task force.
Through organizations like the Harvest Table, Menefee said the community has been able to provide food, clothing and sometimes shelter for a day or two. However, he noted that finding permanent housing has always been an issue.
“Homelessness is not a crime,” Menefee said. “We need a place to send them.”
The chief acknowledged that Washington has seen an uptick in homelessness over the past couple of years.
Menefee just asked for the community to keep an open mind about the shelter because many homeless people want a better life.
The task force got its start in 2016 and since then has held two successful hygiene drives and a pop-top food drive.
Between September 2018 and March 2019, the HTF has helped 112 family units.
In January, the HTF determined there are 32 homeless, or at risk of being homeless, families in the county. The families range from individuals to parents with children.
The task force meets on the first Tuesday of each month at 10 a.m. in the lower level of the Washington Public Safety Building at 301 Jefferson St., Washington.
Individuals or families who are at risk of becoming homeless or are already homeless can call or text the task force at 636-221-1119 for assistance.