Wade Booth, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pleasanton, speaks to the Mound City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 2, about a homeless shelter he is starting in a former nursing home at Prescott (Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)
By Roger Sims, firstname.lastname@example.org
Wade Booth is about to take a giant leap of faith in a cause he has sought to promote over the past couple months: creating a shelter for the homeless in Linn County.
And while Booth, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pleasanton, hasn’t wavered in his conviction that turning a former nursing home in Prescott into a shelter he has dubbed Safe Harbor Mission, it has been difficult for him to find people outside his congregation to buy into the cause.
His repeated attempt to involve the Linn County Commission in helping get the shelter off the ground resulted in a thumbs-down from the commissioners. The city council of Prescott, fearing that such a shelter would lure drug addicts and mentally ill people to their small community, also turned Booth away.
He has appealed to the city councils of both Mound City and La Cygne as well. Twice he and building owner Jessy Willard have appeared before the Mound City Council, the latest on last Tuesday, Jan. 2.
At that meeting Mayor Wade Doering told him he wasn’t sure what the city could do and wouldn’t make a commitment until the matter had been discussed with the city attorney. Doering also said the council’s duty was to make sure that tax revenue was spent appropriately.
The La Cygne City Council heard his presentation at its Dec. 6 meeting. While a couple of council members privately thought the shelter had merit, City Clerk Jodi Wade wasn’t sure that the shelter was something the city could put in its budget.
In trying to bring the need for the shelter home to that council, Booth told them that a homeless Mound City resident was currently living in a van at Linn County Park by the La Cygne power plant.
In a separate interview, Booth admitted that it had been difficult to get government officials to commit to help for the shelter. In the absence of their support, he has turned to churches in the community for their support. His own church committed $2,000 to help get the shelter started.
But whether he gets that support or not, Booth said he is continuing with his plan to resign as church pastor and move with his wife, Janet, into a part of the nursing home by the end of February. Over the past few days, he has been working to fix plumbing so he and his wife can make that move.
Booth said that as far as their living expenses are concerned he and his wife draw Social Security. Willard said he would allow the Booths and the shelter to occupy the former nursing home for six months rent-free to help it get established.
Some of the problem with getting more support could stem from some statements Booth made to the county commission in hopes of gaining their help. Although he initially wasn’t sure how many homeless people were staying in Linn County, Booth warned that financial hardship and lack of housing could swell the number of homeless to as many as 300 over the next couple of years.
The pastor has also warned that the combination of the doubling of property taxes, higher interest rates and inflation could soon force elderly residents out of their homes.
His remarks gave the idea that the shelter would accept people from across the region, and many people likely envisioned a rural version of the City Union Mission in Kansas City, Mo., with people roaming around the area all day.
Linn County Sheriff Kevin Friend said in a recent interview that the number of homeless Linn County residents was about half a dozen. He said that if the county dispatch gets a call about a homeless person from outside the area, a deputy will be dispatched to take information. More often than not, that person is driven to the county line to be passed north to City Union Mission, which has the necessary resources.
The sheriff said he was concerned that if the shelter became a draw for the region, particularly for troubled people who live on the fringe, it would create a drain on the resources of his department.
“Linn County is not used to seeing a homeless person walking down the street,” Friend said.
Over the past few weeks, Booth has reshaped his vision to, he hopes, make it more palatable to county residents.
Booth twice has approached the Linn County Commission seeking financial help to develop the Prescott Country View nursing home into apartments to house homeless people. Following some pushback from area residents, however, the commission voted to not lend any help to the project.
However, Linn County Sheriff Kevin Friend said in a recent interview that making the former home into a homeless shelter could create problems that would be difficult for his office and deputies to deal with if it drew people who did have drug or mental health issues.
Booth told the Mound City Council that the sheriff had told him that the sheriff’s office would handle the people on drugs and those with mental illness.
But in the interview, Friend said that drug users have more of a tendency to stay with friends who can help them procure drugs, and that people who suffer from mental illness can’t be arrested for that alone.
Friend said that he currently has a homeless person who has mental health issues in the county jail, however, that person was in possession of narcotics and was arrested.
Friend said he thought Booth’s project would draw more community support if it focused on becoming a shelter for domestic violence victims, a center for child advocacy and worked with the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center in addressing Linn County’s needs.
Over the past few weeks, Booth has narrowed the focus of the shelter to Linn County residents who are homeless. In addition to long-term help for families that don’t have a roof over their heads, Safe Harbor Mission plans to provide short-term shelter as well for people who are victims of disasters such as house fires, flooding, and tornados.
Also in the list of services is a soup kitchen and a respite care facility for foster parents who need someone to watch their foster children for a day or two. Booth said that he and his wife had been foster parents and he was well aware of the needs of foster families.
The Safe Harbor Mission will provide help to families, friends and neighbors who “find themselves in a displaced condition,” according to a flyer he has printed.
How would the mission help?
“By providing them shelter, food, clothing and programs, for recovery,” the flyer said. “By providing resources to build both the psychical and spiritual person for a successful re-entry back into a more productive life. We want to give a person a hand up not a hand out.’
Booth envisions that his shelter will provide a two-year program to those who are willing to sign a contract to take steps to improve their living situation. That includes getting a job or attending classes to help them get a better job.
Mound City’s Doering called the two-year proposal excessive and said he thought that a sixth-month stay should suffice for most people.
Booth has repeatedly invoked the promise of the STARS program, the county vocational training school in Pleasanton, as a path to that training. He has indicated that STARS can train the long-term residents for free.
But STARS Director Jay Allen points out two problems with Booth’s assumptions on what the STARS academy can do: students must attend from the first day of each semester for many classes, and there is no such thing as free tuition at STARS.
While people who move into Safe Harbor in mid-semester could take some classes, including a GED course or carpentry, it isn’t possible for other courses.
Tuition for the students there who are currently enrolled in one of the five high schools that sends students to STARS is paid for by Senate Bill 155. Students who have dropped out of school and are coming back to finish are also covered by that federal bill, Allen said.
But those who have already graduated from high school and are returning to school to learn a trade must pay the tuition, which is currently $123 per credit hour. In addition, many of the courses expect for students to purchase their own tools.
Access to both services and jobs is also a concern. Prescott remains at least a 10-minute drive to either Mound City or Pleasanton or even further to Fort Scott. But Booth said he has a seven-passenger and a 15-passenger van to haul people to jobs and classes.
Despite the concerns, Booth has faith that his mission to help people will succeed. His plans are to make the move into a 16-bed unit of the nursing home, which at its peak had 65 beds, in the course of the next two months.
And despite concerns about the nuts and bolts of making the shelter viable, many people support his vision.
“I think its a great thing you’re trying to do,” Mayor Doering told Booth.