Wesley House expands to help Pittsburg area's homeless, hungry
The homeless community in Pittsburg, Kansas, became Marcee Binder’s family as they sheltered in the lobby of Wesley House throughout the last winter’s bitter-cold days.
Binder, executive director and pastor at Wesley House, an outreach of First United Methodist Church in Pittsburg, said the lobby was not designed to be a shelter, but it offers reprieve for the community’s homeless as the winter wind cuts through worn clothing or as the hot summer sun beats down.
Now, construction is under way to build a 537-square-foot day shelter at Wesley House to help provide breakfast, lunch, laundry, showers and other homeless services, including a dedicated part-time case manager, courtesy of the organization’s collaboration with the city of Pittsburg to secure a $40,000 Emergency Solutions Grant for the project.
Nowhere to go
In Pittsburg and southeast Kansas, the options are slim if you are homeless or on the verge of losing your home.
“We’re a community that’s embedded in counties that are entrenched in poverty,” said Becky Gray, director of housing and community development for the city of Pittsburg. “In our corner of Kansas, the city of Pittsburg is the only large community that’s growing.”
The region’s poverty cycle stems from generations back when immigrants from southern Europe arrived to work in the coal mines, which remain in the memory of the region courtesy of older generations and the deep pools dotting the region where the earth once was rolled back in search of the mineral.
The mines have long since closed, but the region’s hard-scrabble heritage continues, despite economic development around education and other business endeavors.
Southeast Kansas did have one homeless shelter, through the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program (SEK-CAP), designed for families with children.
However, state funding realignments resulted in the closure of the homeless shelter at the end of March 2014.
Community organizations, churches and ministries organized a push that helped the shelter to reopen briefly later that spring, but no one organization was able to replace the lost grant funding, and the SEK-CAP shelter closed again on July 15, 2014, with administrators noting that it would not reopen until sustainable funding could be secured to keep it open for the long-run.
Commitment to collaboration
In the midst of these challenges, Binder was appointed to serve at Wesley House and hit the ground running, making friends and connections and dreaming of filling that gap through creative collaborations with organizations including the local health department, mental health, ministerial alliance,
Extension Office and more.
“It’s all about partnerships,” Binder said. “When we all get together, we can have a bigger impact.”
Wesley House already provided the community’s primary food pantry, facilitated a school supply drive and housed Catholic Charities, which offers emergency utility and rental assistance, and under Binder’s leadership, Wesley House has continued to expand its services, particularly for homeless individuals.
“In our little facility, if someone comes in and says they are homeless and wants to be part of our program, if they want to work with us on a case plan, then we can do whatever we need to get them housed.”
Binder also dreamed of helping to fill the need for a homeless shelter, and said she advocated for that cause when, last November, an individual walked through the building and, off the cuff, asked,” What would you do with $40,000?”
“I thought, we need to get them a place, and we need to feed them,” Binder said.
She later found out she was being pre-screened for a potential grant from the area’s Skubitz Foundation, and that grant, which ended up totaling $44,227, helped fund the construction of the shelter.
Binder also formed alliances with the city of Pittsburg, where she teamed up with Gray for an additional grant-writing process.
“The city’s been receiving the ESG (Emergency Solutions Grant) grant for at least five years, if not longer,” Gray said, adding that Pittsburg has partnered with other not-for-profits in the past and was pleased to work with Wesley House.
“The Emergency Solutions Grant adds to our community’s effort to use a Housing First model in homeless services. We have already seen successes using this approach and believe that with increased funding we can make a real impact on our community's housing needs,” said Pittsburg City Manager Daron Hall.
Gray said Binder’s radical hospitality makes Wesley House an accessible entry point and the foundation for a one-stop-shop approach to homeless services for the region.
“Wesley House became that safe place for people with nowhere else to land,” Gray said. “They were welcomed there and treated well.”
“Everyone has worth,” Binder said. “Everyone has value, and we often don’t treat our poor that way. But they are amazing. Their stories of survival are incredible. Their stories of survival show me how amazing God is.”
One of the many challenges for homeless or low-income individuals is the multi-stop process involved in securing help, and Gray said the consolidation of resources under one roof is a huge step in the right direction.
“With limited resources, being able to go to one place and find all the support you need and make the decision easier to go there,” said Gray, adding that a single point of entry and a single screening can provide significant relief and access to resources for people seeking to get back on their feet.
“This one-stop shop is a huge dream of mine,” Binder said.
“It just makes it a lot easier for the service providers to build relationships,” said Jami Crowder, who has worked with homeless households in Southeast Kansas for years and now works through Wesley House as homeless prevention and rapid rehousing program manager.
“We are able to provide services in a safe, comfortable environment that people are already aware of,” Crowder continued. “It makes it a lot more convenient for our clients.”
Binder said ongoing support, such as the United Methodist Church’s providing of socks, blankets, food, funds and more, is still needed, as are prayers as she also continues to dream and collaborate.
Binder said she cried in the evenings last winter while locking the doors and heading to her heated home as her friends faced frigid nights on the streets, and she hopes future efforts can lead to overnight shelter opportunities as well.
“My brain never turns off, and I’m always thinking of ways to help folks, because my call is to serve,” Binder said.