ELKHART — An estimated 25 to 50 people are spending the night in frigid temperatures without a place to stay, representative Kevin Farmwald told the League of Women Voters on Thursday during a roundtable discussion. 

The League of Women Voters, a civic group aimed at helping its members take a larger role in public affairs, asked Farmwald and other advocates to talk about the homeless situation in the city and about the Elkhart City Homeless Coalition, which seeks to help the homeless and those who are at risk.

Homelessness, he said, stretches beyond tent cities and residents sleeping on park benches.

On the same Thursday night, nearly 200 people spent the night at Faith Mission, Hope House, Goshen Interfaith Hospitality Network and other smaller shelters in the area.

Then there’s the uncounted – some 1,000 to 2,000, maybe more, who are couch surfers. They’ll stay for a day, or a week, with a friend or family member, then hope to move on to the next place before their presence is no longer welcomed, he said.

“People move from a couch of friends, to a tent in the back yard, to an abandoned vehicle, to Faith Mission,” Farmwald said. “Then they’ll get a job and get their own apartment and be on the margins and then one thing happens and they’re back to being homeless. We’re serving a broad number of people.”

Farmwald, Oaklawn’s spiritual care facilitator, team leader for the Goshen Homeless Coalition and a member of the Elkhart city Homeless Coalition, led the conversation alongside licensed case manager and director of Saving Grace Advocacy Chris Ulery.

“What we found in the coalition, and one of the reasons we got together, is that we were overlapping services,” Ulery said. “To streamline things and make sure that folks get the services they need, we have to all work together. This way we can get services faster and we can help them better.”

By doing this, participants learned about a lot of missing services in the community and continue to strive to close the service gaps, he said. 

Director of Homeless Services Angie Wogoman of Guidance Ministries explained how her organization became a day center for homeless, after they realized there weren’t very many options for weather amnesty folks especially when they’re forced to leave Faith Mission at 8 a.m. every day.

“We have cots where people can nap during the day because sometimes our homeless have been wandering around all night,” she said. They offer shower and laundry facilities at no charge, snacks, mock interviews, case management and more.

As a low-barrier facility, Guidance Ministries offers services to those still struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism just as weather amnesty does.

Susanna’s Kitchen helps to fill the need by serving dinner at noon every weekday at the First Congregational Church in Elkhart.

“You realize they’re people just like you and me,” said Polly Shafer of Suzanna’s Kitchen. “They’ve just had a little different things happen in their lives. I’m glad to be able to do this.”

There are also organizations that help keep at-risk people from becoming homeless. The Salvation Army, Saving Grace and St. John’s, to name a few.

Farmwald said issues such as past criminal convictions, addiction, affordable housing and bedbugs all play a role in the continuation of homelessness in the county.

Nonetheless, organizations are helping to stem homelessness in their own ways and advocates recommend that, rather than offering money to panhandlers, they refer those in need to the coalition.

“If someone needs a bus pass, or if someone needs just 90 cents, most of us have those things at our agencies so keep those things in your pocket or give them to one of us,” Wogoman said.

More information about the coalition is available on Facebook at www.facebook.com/elkhomecoalition.

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