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Homelessness in Oxford steadily decreasing

 

A proposed bill in the Mississippi state legislature hopes to create a 10-year plan that could have a lasting impact on the homeless around Mississippi, as well as the homeless community in Oxford.

The bill proposed by Sen. Frazier of Jackson would enact a Mississippi Interagency Council on Homelessness starting July 1. This council would focus on youth, families, veterans and other individuals who are homeless. 

Homelessness is defined by the United States Code as those who do not have a regular nighttime residence or those who take residence in a shelter or somewhere that is supervised as temporary residence that is not “designed for, ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.” 

In the outline of the bill, multiple references are made to the importance of specifically ending child homelessness and that it is “urgently and necessarily possible.” The bill reports that in the 2010-11 school year, more than 12,000 homeless children were in the state.

Jean Shaw, a founder and leader in the LOU Homeless Task Force, as well as a former mathematics professor at the University of Mississippi, said she has seen the negative effects of child homelessness in Oxford. 

“This has to be traumatic to a child who knows what’s going on,” Shaw said. “Often children are cold and hungry.”

In 2010, 133 homeless children lived in Oxford. Last year, there were 70 homeless children, and that number has since dropped down to 14, according to Shaw.

The numbers for homeless adults has also decreased in Oxford. Since 2010, Oxford has gone from 294 homeless people to 35 homeless people as of February 9, 2012. These numbers do not include chronic homeless people or “street people” who do not seek help. 

“To my knowledge, we have had only one or two cases of (street people) over this three-year period,” Shaw said. 

Mary Margaret Saulters, a senior double major in anthropology and biology, works with Interfaith Compassion Ministries, a United Way affiliate, and since fall 2011, Saulters has also served as an intern with AmeriCorps through the UM College Corps division. She has helped raise local awareness about homelessness through fundraisers and by assisting the homeless at ICM. 

“When I am at the office, I am usually meeting with clients, homeless or facing eviction, and evaluating how we can best help them,” Saulters said. “Because there is not a permanent shelter in Oxford, that usually means making arrangements for them to go to shelters in nearby towns such as Tupelo or Water Valley.”

Saulters said working with ICM has been an eye-opening experience. 

“Before that interview, I never realized that homelessness was a problem in Oxford,” Saulters said. “This is what made me want to be involved in homeless outreach, to raise awareness in the community and to give people outlets to help the homeless through education and fundraising.”

Saulters has participated in different efforts to raise money and awareness, including the 2012 UM Chili Bowl for the Soul in partnership with UM Homeless Outreach. Through this, Saulters said she has seen the community respond to the issue. However, she said she believes more could be done through the proposed bill’s long-term program.

“Because there is not a permanent shelter in Oxford, a lot of the help that we provide for the homeless is not as sustainable as we would like for it to be,” Saulters said. “While our goal is to encourage independence among our homeless clients, we cannot be as involved in rehabilitation as we might be if there was a permanent shelter.”

Robin Walker, a liberal studies senior, is the AmeriCorps delegate for More Than a Meal, a service providing a hot meal and tutoring weekly to the community at the Stone Center in Oxford. 

“We have four (participants) that are homeless,” Walker said. “Through the help of ICM, they are put in the hotels around town whenever funds allow. It’s hard to think about what they do when they don’t have those funds available.”

Walker said the community is responding well to the increased awareness of homelessness, but this could be improved with a long-term plan. 

“These are only the families that we see that are able to get a ride there, get the OUT bus there or have a car, but I think there are a lot more on the outskirts of the county,” Walker said. “For Oxford not even being aware that there is a homeless problem, we are doing a really good job of raising awareness through the UM Homeless Outreach, and it really just comes down to funds.”

Walker said she hopes to see More Than a Meal assist more of the community through the tutoring services, as well as assisting those in need of a degree. 

“One thing that is really pressing is not having a high school certificate,” Walker said. “Other organizations help us out with that a lot, ICM especially. They come on More Than a Meal nights and do the tutoring and follow through with them to try to help out as much as we can.”

Walker said by helping those on the verge of homelessness through some type of long-term plan, Oxford could keep those struggling from becoming a part of the local homeless statistic.