Retired police officer Les Fister (left) and the Rev. Devin Wolters, of the Greene County Homeless Coalition, check for signs of life July 31 in the restrooms at the city park in Scranton. The coalition was conducting its second Point-in-Time Count of the homeless this year, part of a growing trend in rural Iowa. The counties are finding that they all have people who have fallen through society’s cracks. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALDResidents in 2018 were alarmed after reading about a series of brushes Jefferson police had with homeless people. How could there be homeless people in a county under 10,000? “We most definitely do,” says Sara Miller, a social worker at the Greene County Medical Center. HERALD FILE PHOTO

Homeless in Greene County: They’re here and they have help

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

Sara Miller’s words of caution were delivered so matter-of-factly last week that, if not for the sight of the Oly’s Corner car wash outside the window of Central Christian Church, it might have been easy to forget where we were.

“You might encounter someone experiencing a reality that’s not your own,” Miller, a social worker with Greene County Public Health, casually warned.

Everyone, however, speaks the universal language of Chex Mix — and the little care packages in our possession as we pulled out of the church parking lot in different directions would be intended as peace offerings.

In addition to little sacks of Chex Mix, each ziplock bag contained a small bottle of water, fresh socks, band-aids, Kleenex, a toothbrush and a sewing kit.

“Here are a few things to brighten your day,” read a card tucked inside. “I just want you to know that I care and that you matter to God. I’m praying for you!”

This particular bag was packed by someone named Chloe, who added a smiley face to the end of her signature.

The rain on this night, July 31, was less forgiving as the fledgling Greene County Homeless Coalition nevertheless fanned out to find the invisible among us.

Homelessness is no longer exclusive to cities — even a rural county like this one has cracks large enough for people to fall through.

And on this night, the coalition would be scouring all the known cracks.

“Don’t approach a situation that’s unsafe,” Miller cautioned. “You’re going to have to be the judge of that.”

“Don’t,” she added, “go too far off the beaten path.” 

“That’s why we’re bringing Andy,” quipped the Rev. Devin Wolters, pastor of First Baptist Church.

I would be paired with Wolters and Les Fister, the retired Jefferson police officer who wrote me my first speeding ticket.

Back then, more than 25 years ago, officers occasionally dealt with transients, but never the homeless, Fister would later explain.

“Not in my wildest imagination,” he replied when asked if he ever thought he’d be participating in a count of the homeless in Greene County (pop. 9,336).

“This is a lot different world today than it was 20 years ago,” the 73-year-old conceded as he drove.

A census of the local homeless population — what’s known as a Point-in-Time Count — is required in January by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order for a community to receive federal homeless assistance grants.

The Greene County Homeless Coalition undertook its first count this past January, and the weather didn’t disappoint. The temperature on the day of the inaugural count was 24 below zero.

Assigned to the county’s northwest quadrant, Fister and Wolters that day found fresh prints in the snow and the remains of a campfire at Hyde Park.

Interesting, sure — suspicious even, given the subzero weather — but not subject to the count.

So for the most part, Fister and Wolters ended up only counting vast numbers of deer.

“We know they’re here because they utilize the services in town,” Wolters said of the homeless.

The members of the coalition — a mix of local clergy, representatives of social service agencies and volunteers — are still learning where best to look. Was that litter at Black’s Pits last week just random or was it a sign they should check back?

Before the first meeting of the Greene County Homeless Coalition in 2018, local clergy quietly shouldered the burden of helping those who darkened their doorways.

In many ways, they’re still the first line of assistance.

Before heading out last week on a mobile team, the Rev. Julie Poulsen, of the First United Methodist Church, gave Miller a head’s up that a woman living in a garage had agreed to come to Central Christian to be counted. The coalition that evening was also staffing stationary locations — one each in Jefferson, Scranton, Grand Junction and Churdan — where anyone without proper shelter could be connected to services and also grab a bite to eat.

“She can really use a hygiene kit,” Poulsen explained, “and any food you can give her.”

The coalition is chaired by Miller, from Public Health, and Ellen Ritter, Greene County’s coordinator of disability services and director of general assistance.

“It came together at the right time with the right people with the right interests,” Miller said.

The coalition’s first Point-in-Time Count in January officially logged one homeless person  — but as many as a half-dozen others were connected to services.

“HUD guidelines for homelessness are different than our guidelines,” Ritter said. “A lot of the students we see at the high school are couch-surfing. We would consider that homeless, but HUD doesn’t.”

How and why someone ends up couch-surfing, sleeping in their car or living in a tent all depends on the individual person.

As Miller would caution before the mobile teams entered the field, “We’re not going to be solving every problem for every person tonight. You’re not out there to provide mental services or drug rehabilitation services.”

Some, Miller reminded, “are there by their own choice.”

This much is known: With more of us living paycheck-to-paycheck, people become homeless much quicker these days.

The coalition is interested in working more closely with landlords. Local clergy is already assisting one family behind on rent. Another family last week needed to come up with $700 in two days — even then, they’re still likely to be evicted in November, no matter what.

Even more pressing, however, is a need for some kind of transitional housing in Greene County that could be used, not just for the homeless, but by victims of domestic violence or even fires.

“We do get homeless people through town. We just don’t have any place to put them,” said Wolters, president of the Greene County Clergy Association.

More and more Iowa counties are conducting Point-in-Time Counts — from 35 of the state’s 99 counties in 2017 to 59 in 2018.

What they’re finding is that, even in rural counties, the homeless are living in plain sight.

Just as the mobile teams were returning last week to Central Christian, the woman Poulsen spoke of — the one living in a garage — came seeking services. With her was a man, also homeless.

Miller and Ritter took them aside in order to talk confidentially.

What they learned is that there are others in Greene County who are homeless, Miller said, “but they’re not coming forward for one reason or another.”

Even more valuable, according to Miller, was the insight they gained into what it’s actually like to be homeless in a small town.

“They can tell when people are being judgmental or just looking at them differently,” Miller said. “It’s hurtful to them.”

“They deserve to be treated as humanely as the rest of us,” she added.

What they heard wasn’t surprising, Miller explained. A lot of people still don’t believe Greene County has any problems.

“Some people,” she said, “think they’re better than that.”

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