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Rising Homeless Rolls Swell Tallahassee Social Service Agencies

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Tallahassee, FL – With overnight lows in the 20s this week, the emergency shelter at Lincoln Neighborhood Center is hosting local homeless people for whom there's no room anywhere else - as many as 100 some nights. Margie Menzel reports.

"Everybody makes a mistake. And everybody falls to some standard sometimes that it's difficult to get from up under. And it don't mean that we're worthless or shiftless it means that we're confused it means sometimes that we're baffled. Sometimes it even means that we're heartbroken."

Charles Knight, 57, of Tallahassee. So far this winter, he's stayed at The Shelter on West Tennessee Street and, on cold nights, at emergency shelters at Lincoln Neighborhood Center and HOPE Community. He has the promise of a job. His friend, 51-year-old Jeff Rogers, became homeless after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his houseboat in Pensacola. Rogers has been job-hunting, too, but says it's a lot harder than it sounds, especially when you're sleeping outside behind The Shelter.

"You know, it might rain in the middle of the night," said Rogers. "Your clothes are soaked. There's nobody wants to see you at a job interview with wet clothes. You've got to take a shower. When you're living on the street, homeless, you've got to take a shower - I don't care who you are. But there's some people I know if they would put their feet in our shoes, just for four hours go through what we go through people would change their minds."

Mel Eby, longtime director of The Shelter, says his facility is so crowded that dozens were sleeping outside for months before the cold snap in early January landed local homelessness in the news.

"The number of homeless people in the county probably has doubled since '99 or 2000," he said. "I think it was, like, 700 then now it's, like, 1400."
Tallahassee has had a cold-nights shelter since 1988, begun in the basement of First Presbyterian Church, whose pastor, Brant Copeland, and several congregation members became longtime leaders of the local response to homelessness. One of them, Christie Koontz, is vice president of board of the The Shelter - which became a stand-alone facility in 1991.

"We didn't have a water fountain. We didn't have beds. We rarely had electricity," said Koontz. "I remember in the early days, I would bring my electric wok down, and kind of like the story of the fishes and the loaves, we would get dried food, and it would explode into 80 portions and the lights would go out."

The Shelter still operates on faith. Of its $700,000 annual budget, roughly $340,000 comes from the United Way and most of the rest from private donations. In the last year, its numbers have climbed to an average of 230 or more nightly. Its guidelines: no stay limit accept people in any condition and no fee.

"People want shelter, but for various reasons they won't try to come," said Eby. "Or else they'll leave here if it gets too a lot of people just don't like being that close to people, the way they are in our dining room and the floor I wouldn't want to wake up with a stranger's face eight inches from my face, you know. Not fun."

Roughly one-quarter of homeless people have a mental disability, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Koontz says The Shelter began after the 1980's saw a huge increase in homelessness when mental patients were de-institutionalized in the U.S.

"State mental hospitals were closed that were for the poor and indigent. And at the same time there was a concept that prescriptions would be given to people and they could be taken care of in their homes. Now the fallacy of this was the number of people who had no home."

Today The Shelter has two nurses who keep and administer mental health medications. Its clients are a mix of people who are chronically homeless and others who are down on their luck and trying to find a job, stay sober right themselves. Some attend the nearby First Presbyterian Church, says the Rev. Brant Copeland.

"I get people who come to church often who say, `I just can't bring myself to stay at The Shelter. It's too crowded I get claustrophobic,'" Copeland said. "Or, frankly, `I'm trying to kick an addiction and don't want to run into people I used to drink with.'"

When The Shelter began, says Copeland, Tallahasseans were more optimistic about ending homelessness.

"Over time, that optimism, it seems to me, has diminished. Just recently, however, partly because of the stir over the overflow at The Shelter, there seems to be some more political will pointed toward a long term solution to homelessness."

Next week both the city and county will hold workshops on responding to the growth of local homelessness. The city's, on Feb. 25, features Barbara Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.