How do you solve homelessness?

This year, thanks to partnerships between various local churches and Polk County Family and Community Outreach leaders, warming shelters have opened up during the bitterly cold winter nights.

Next week won’t be so bad, with lows in the 40s for the most part. But last week, Polk County saw overnight lows in the 20s and 30s.

While we don’t often see people begging openly on the streets or covered in newspaper sleeping on park benches, we do see it. People are homeless in Polk County, make no mistake.

How do you fix it? What is the “solution to homelessness”?

Often you hear about government coalitions or task forces to end homelessness formed. Government agencies throw money at research or homeless counts to try and put numbers and faces on the homeless.

The efforts have good intentions, but homelessness is a complicated beast. Causes often range from untreated mental health to drug addiction, underemployment to high housing costs, or bad luck, or a combination of those.

Because the causes are unique to the individual experiencing homelessness, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

To complicate matters, each government organization defines homelessness differently, from school districts to cities to state to federal. Some definitions are easy to agree on. A family living out of their car or in a tent by the river is homeless. Not many would argue that.

Is a child living with grandparents homeless? By some definitions, yes.

How about a teenager crashing with friends? Yep.

Two families living together under one roof? Depends on who you ask, but yes, they would be considered homeless in some circles.

Add in the transient nature of people who are homeless and you’re in for a real mess when it comes to data collection.

Who can blame them for moving around so much? While collaborative efforts have opened warming shelters for those in need, Polk County remains lacking in the homeless-shelter area. That is, there is none.

If someone needs to find a bed to sleep in for the night, they must make their way across the bridge to Marion County. With minimum public transportation in Polk County, even this journey is difficult.

We’re happy to see partnerships forming between church and state — namely, the city of Independence and The Gate — to try and help mitigate the issues through a warming shelter. We — and Independence councilors — have questions we hope are answered before the city commits $12,000 a year to the Gate, including a better estimate of homelessness in the area.

Yes, we know we just pointed out that this is not an easy task. But “we don’t know” is not a good enough answer for that price tag.

If the warming shelter was only open for one night of the year, that’s a lot of money to have contributed. What will the money pay for? How many people could be put up in a hotel for that price?

We’re glad to see the council considering it, and asking more questions before signing on the line.

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