Where are they? When going home after class isn’t an option

McKenna Dosier/The News

Story by Lindsey Coleman, Assistant News Editor

In January of 2016, Jennifer Bomar experienced a house fire and lost everything in her home, thus rendering her family homeless.

The Gentry House, an emergency transitional homeless shelter in Murray, was able to house her family, including her seven children, in a hotel for two nights until a unit became available. Bomer’s family stayed in a Gentry House unit for 120 days.

“That gave me time to find permanent housing, which is what they do,” Bomar said. “They find permanent housing for people in transition.”

At the time of the fire, Bomar was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work at Murray State. She is slated to graduate in December.

“We found a house, and I was able to stay in school because of the help,” Bomar said. “It alleviated the stress of making a stable place for me and my children. I didn’t have to worry about where we were going to sleep or eat.”

COLLEGE AND HOMELESSNESS

In a study published earlier this this year by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, one-third of community college students battle food security, while 14 percent are homeless. In 2015, those rates were lower, with one-fifth of the 4,000 students surveyed reporting hunger and 13 percent experiencing homelessness.

Even though Bomar faced homelessness while pursuing a college degree, she persevered. As her family was able to find permanent housing and return to normalcy, Bomar chose to do an internship with The Gentry House, which she started in August.

“It ties into what I want to do, because it’s working with children and helping families,” Bomar said.

Since Bomar has worked at The Gentry House, she said she hasn’t personally dealt with any college students. She has mostly seen families with children, which is the criteria for those who can apply for temporary housing in The Gentry House’s units.

MURRAY AND HOMELESSNESS

Jasmine Scott, a recent Murray State graduate and director of The Gentry House, began an internship with the organization in January, and in May, she became the director. She said she thinks the Murray-Calloway County community doesn’t realize the issue of homelessness around them.

Part of the problem in recognizing homelessness is the misconception of what homelessness looks like. Scott said homelessness doesn’t only affect someone on the side of the road living out of bags; it could be anyone, like Bomar’s family.

“A college education means nothing,” Scott said. “You could be homeless and have a doctorate. It doesn’t matter.”

In Scott’s experience, she said the community usually only thinks of hunger as an issue, but she thinks hunger ties into homelessness.

“In my opinion, I think hunger is going to get taken care of,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of food banks, but here in Murray, there only two shelters.”

The Gentry House and The Way of Wellness are the two shelters in Murray, which only serve families with children or women with children, respectively.

Since Scott has worked with The Gentry House, she said she has seen a few college students apply for emergency assistance, which is anything from food vouchers to bus passes or an emergency hotel stay.

EDUCATION AND HOMELESSNESS

Traci Lawrence is the founder and director of The Way of Wellness, a faith-based residential mentoring facility that serves women with children who are homeless or victims of domestic violence. She said since they opened their doors in May, all of their clients have at least finished high school or earned their GED, plus one of the 33 clients of The Way of Wellness was a woman who had her bachelor’s degree in sociology.

“I think that’s very shocking because everyone kind of assumes that they didn’t finish school or something, and that’s not always the case,” Lawrence said. “There’s so many single moms out there with minimum wage jobs, and those minimum wage jobs are not enough to pay rent, your gas bill, your electric bill, your water bill and your insurance on your car. It’s like minimum wage doesn’t cut it.”

A common argument used to eradicate homelessness is for people to simply get a job, but Lawrence said the women she meets through The Way of Wellness don’t have anyone to watch their children during the late shifts they usually work. She said 85 percent of their clients get stuck with shifts that no one else wants.

“We run into that a whole lot, and in fact, as an organization, we’ve talked about opening a daycare for that second shift,” Lawrence said. “There’s already daycares for the first shift.”

Most of The Way of Wellness’ clients report homelessness, but Lawrence said the overwhelming majority of them have been victims of abuse in the past, whether it’s child abuse or it’s a previously abusive spouse.

“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Lawrence said. “Our whole goal is to offer a program that develops skills and offers them tools that help break that cycle of dependence and domestic violence. We want this to be the last shelter they go to.”

HUNGER AND HOMELESSNESS

Debbie Smith, founder and director of Soup for the Soul, said the soup kitchen was a “giving-back good thing” that she didn’t know Murray needed. The kitchen averages around 80 clients per night, five nights per week. 

“For a lot of our clients, mom and dad both work, and they have two or three children, but they just run out of money because they both make minimum wage, and it’s just hard to pay car insurance, send kids to school and to everything you have to do,” Smith said.

In the three years Smith has been running Soup for the Soul, she said she has welcomed some college students to the kitchen and about 15 homeless visitors. She said there are likely more homeless individuals she didn’t know about.

“You can’t tell that they’re homeless,” Smith said. “You won’t know unless they decide to confide in you and tell you.”

Last week Smith said she received a phone call about a homeless man and his wife. For situations like this couple, she said shelters, churches, the police department or other organizations in Murray will help out if they can.

“It’s just a sad situation,” Smith said. “Murray really needs a temporary homeless shelter.”

She has talked to people who want to get something started for homeless men in Murray, but like Scott, Smith said she thinks the Murray community is largely unaware of the homelessness present in the area.

“If they can just get a job and their first check or people to help them with their deposit, a lot of times they do get back on their feet and do get better,” Smith said.

For Bomar, the assistance she received from The Gentry House was what allowed her to get back on her feet and stay in college.

During the annual Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week from Nov. 11-19, groups across the nation will host education and advocacy events, complete service projects and promote fundraising initiatives. To get involved, visit hhweek.org.