Serving the homeless

Stretched mental health resources create struggle

Every year, HUD conducts a “point in time homeless count.” It’s a difficult process and involves individuals going out into the community and physically locating and counting every person who is homeless.

As of May 31, there were 37 unsheltered homeless individuals in Anderson County, and eight in transitional housing. Three of the unsheltered homeless are children.

None are veterans.

Melanie Cordell, CEO of the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless, is organizing a rural homeless conference in Oak Ridge on June 19. It’s a side of homelessness that is overlooked, especially nationally. Most services for the homeless are available in cities, not rural areas. Cordell experienced the need firsthand when she worked at the domestic violence shelter in Campbell County, and then opened the warming shelters in LaFollette for two years.

“Living in a rural community myself, and working with individuals in poverty, I’ve seen how difficult it has been for them to access resources,” she said.

Around 60-percent of single individuals who are homeless are in their current situation because they have lost their home due to job loss or foreclosure, according to Cordell, who based that off of experience, not exact statistics. The other 40-percent is homeless due to substance abuse or mental illness.

“As I’ve worked with the adult homeless population, they don’t qualify for state insurance,” Cordell said. “For them to be able to access any kind of healthcare, they just don’t do it because they don’t have a way to pay for it. Even if there’s a sliding fee scale, if they’re homeless and unemployed, they can’t pay it, not for prescriptions or a doctor’s visit.”

Homeless youth are some of the hardest to serve, according to Cordell, because they often don’t realize they qualify for homeless services. They may be living on someone’s couch or simply don’t want to accept that they are homeless.

But individuals with severe mental health problems are the most challenging.

“The shelters can’t treat someone,” Cordell explained. “They don’t have the adequate staff to support individuals with a mental health diagnosis. A lot of those individuals are turned away.”

Ridgeview Behavioral Health has offices in Oak Ridge and LaFollette, and they do have a hospital in Oak Ridge for individuals with mental illness. Most people can get access to Ridgeview if they don’t have health insurance through a sliding fee scale. They can also apply to Safety Net.

Safety Net is a state-run program that offers behavioral health services and prescription coverage through CoverRX for people at or below the poverty line. It is a program someone can sign up for at Ridgeview, Cherokee Health, Frontier Health, Helen Ross McNabb, Peninsula or Volunteer Behavioral Health. Only outpatient services are available and it is only for mental health issues.

While this is a fantastic program for the homeless population and those below the poverty line, another problem can prevent access to even that: transportation.

“I’ve worked with individuals who were crying, and so passionate that they need and want a job, but they don’t have the transportation,” Cordell said. “It’s hard for them to become stable if they don’t have transportation. And there’s no mass transit in rural communities.”

Many surrounding counties have zero services for the homeless population, according to Cordell. Anderson County has services in Oak Ridge, but that’s challenging for people in places like Rocky Top or Briceville.

“And TORCH [which works with the homeless population in Oak Ridge] is so inundated with the homeless in that city that it’s hard for them to get out to the county lines and work with those individuals,” she said.

The definition of homeless goes beyond people without any type of shelter.

It also includes people living in dilapidated homes with no running water or no way to cook, she said. Sometimes run-down trailers and homes that look abandoned actually have people living in them.

The June 19 conference is intended to raise awareness about rural poverty and the lack of services.

“It’s just a start,” Cordell said, “to offer a connection to hope, housing, healthcare and human services. Rural homelessness as a nation has been overlooked. We really do have a rise.”

Cordell said that the number of homeless in rural areas has steadily increased since the recession in 2008.