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Class project expands to help the homeless

Last fall, on a very chilly night, students from the Lakeland High School DECA business club spent the night on the lawn of the LaGrange First Church of God to raise money to help the homeless.

This week, they presented two checks for $555 each, to Reason 4 Hope, which operates the Hope Café in LaGrange, and the First Church of God, which plans to use the money for its homeless project.

The event, though, was just the start of what is becoming an effort to examine and address the issue of homelessness in LaGrange County. A community meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Monday, March 31, in the Lakeland High School auditorium. Anyone who is interested in this issue is invited to attend.

But, how big of an issue is it?

“It’s a harder problem to address,” noted LHS teacher Robert Albaugh. He pointed out that in this area, homelessness is not a visible problem like it is in metropolitan areas.

“They’re not street people,” added First Church of God Pastor Brian VanOsdol. “People are sleeping in their cars, in the parks, even the cemeteries.” His church has run a house where a family can stay for up to three months as they look for permanent housing, as well as helping other families with temporary housing at area hotels. “We can only help one family at a time, and the house never sits empty,” VanOsdol said. That option, though, is going away late this year.

They are also currently helping two families stay in an area hotel. “Clearly, from our point of view, there is a problem,” VanOsdol stated.

Albaugh, along with VanOsdol and Jamelle Godlewski from Reason 4 Hope, are hoping to get as many stakeholders in the community as possible to attend the March 31 meeting. This can include healthcare, mental health professionals, education, law enforcement, churches, business owners and others. The hope is to start the conversation on the problem and how to address it in this area.

“How do we define homelessness?” Godlewski asked. She noted that the Hope Café sees a crowd of people that comes in that they can help. “I know some are in a constant circle of ‘where do I live now?’ But there are very few resources available. How do we get out of that cycle?”

VanOsdol noted that their experience has shown it can take three months for a family to get back on its feet.

Part of the issue the group is looking to address is the perception by those in the community who won’t recognize the problem or prefer to displace the problem and move it somewhere else.

The first step, Godlewski said, is to make them aware that there is a problem. And that starts with the discussion planned for March 31.