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Welcome To Shawnee, Oklahoma: The Worst City In America To Be Homeless

By Scott Keyes  

"Welcome To Shawnee, Oklahoma: The Worst City In America To Be Homeless"

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Gary Lynn Roy was too poor to live indoors. At night, even when it was cold, even when it snowed, he slept outside. He had no choice.

Gary Lynn Roy

Gary Lynn Roy

CREDIT: Shawnee Rescue Mission’s Facebook page

There are plenty of reasons why he was poor. He’d earn occasional pay as a builder, but construction jobs were too few. Nor did it help that he and his twin brother Larry used to drink heavily together. Larry eventually got clean. Gary tried. Sometimes he’d sober up, but just as often he’d relapse. Larry wanted to help, but alcoholism is a vicious disease. Eventually, Larry returned to the family home, alone, in order to get his life back on track, while Gary remained on the streets. “I feel so guilty [leaving my brother],” Larry told Glenn Blankenship, who ran a nearby homeless non-profit.

By late 2012, though, Gary seemed to be turning things around. He’d stopped drinking. He’d found a construction job. Things were looking up.

Then, while working on a roof one day, he fell. The impact broke both his legs. He couldn’t move without a walker, so construction work was out of the question. “Sleeping outside is hard enough, but then having a hard time getting around and being cold?” Blankenship told ThinkProgress. “He just had to be miserable.”

As anyone from Oklahoma knows, winters can be downright Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short. And so it was on February 20 of last year, as Gary Roy was readying for sleep by the railroad tracks in a small city called Shawnee, that local news ran dire headlines: “Oklahoma Bracing For Second Wave Of Winter Weather.” Temperatures dropped below freezing. Snow started falling and it didn’t stop. By the next day, six inches had blanketed the area.

No one will know if Roy had final words, because no one was there when he took his last breath.

Roy died, as so many homeless do, surrounded by homes. He may have even helped build some of them, knowing he himself couldn’t afford to be in one. Authorities discovered his body the next day, lying in the snow. He would have been 50 today. He’ll forever be 49.

It didn’t have to be that way. Less than a mile from where Roy froze to death, there was supposed to be a brand new shelter for Shawnee’s homeless to come get a meal, supportive services, and a warm place to rest their heads, especially during the ravages of an Oklahoma winter. Blankenship’s non-profit had recently won a major grant — nearly half a million dollars — to upgrade its facilities into an overnight shelter that would serve the city’s homeless.

And yet the shelter was never built. A dozen blocks away from where Roy slept outside for the final time, there are still no beds. Standing between Roy and dozens of new shelter beds that night was one wealthy city commissioner and a city that has declared all-out war on its homeless residents.

WELCOME TO SHAWNEE

Sleeping outside, whether in Shawnee or elsewhere, is extremely dangerous, and not just because of the cold. Homeless people are also far more likely to be victims of violence. In fact, a study last year found there were more than 1,300 violent hate crimes perpetrated against homeless individuals since 1999, including 357 people who were killed. One of them was Alan Branscum, a homeless man in Shawnee who was living under the South Beard Bridge in 2011. His attackers were out late drinking by the river, encountered Branscum as he slept, and brutally beat him to death.

The day before he died, Branscum visited Blankenship’s homeless services non-profit, the Shawnee Rescue Mission. But because the Rescue Mission was not a shelter, he couldn’t stay there. “The only thing we had to offer him was our backpack of food for the homeless,” Sarah Inselman, a Rescue Mission volunteer who’d helped him, said. If Branscum had been indoors that night instead of under the bridge, he would almost certainly still be alive today.

5592394222_26431e3fe6_z

CREDIT: flickr user 8915705@N03

But in January 2011, it looked as though the shelter situation was about to improve. Seven months before Branscum was killed and two years before Roy’s death, the Rescue Mission won a grant from the Affordable Housing Program, a private organization that funds affordable housing ventures across the country, for $450,000. The money was earmarked to convert the Rescue Mission from a faith-based food pantry and soup kitchen to a full-service shelter, complete with a commercial kitchen, bathrooms and showers, a day center, and enough beds for 23 men, 11 women, and three families.

Blankenship was ecstatic. The project would allow Shawnee to double its capacity to serve the city’s homeless population, and best of all, “it wouldn’t have cost the city a dime,” he told ThinkProgress. To this day, a news story about that grant is the very first thing visitors to Shawnee Rescue Mission’s website read.

All he needed before renovations could begin was a simple administrative tweak from the city commission to change the building’s zoning classification.

MEET THE MILLIONAIRE VICE MAYOR

Commissioner James Harrod is a wealthy man. Not just wealthy for the Shawnee area, but wealthy for any area. Combing through city deeds and rental websites, ThinkProgress was able to identify at least 58 separate properties throughout Shawnee that he and/or his wife, Kaye Steele Harrod, own. Zillow, an online real estate database, estimates that the collective value of their real estate holdings is more than $3.5 million.

Like most homeowners, not to mention landlords, Harrod and his wife care a great deal about their property values. In fact, the couple once went so far as to sue the City Commission — which Harrod was serving on — in an attempt to block construction of a $4.5 million apartment complex that would serve some low-income residents because it was near some of their properties. The Commission had voted six to one to approve the project in 2003; Harrod cast the sole dissenting vote. Their lawsuit was eventually dismissed.

Shawnee Vice Mayor James Harrod

Shawnee Vice Mayor James Harrod

CREDIT: Shawnee city website

Nearly a decade later, the Harrods again found themselves fighting a new development project in town: the Shawnee Rescue Mission. This time, though, James wasn’t just on the City Commission; he served as Vice Mayor. They were determined not to lose twice.

On September 5, 2012, the Shawnee Planning Commission took up the Rescue Mission’s zoning request. Blankenship told ThinkProgress he had expected the matter to be a simple formality. After all, beyond being the right thing to do, the city didn’t need to spend a dime on it. What politician doesn’t support development projects that they can boast came at zero expense to taxpayers?

But it would soon become clear that that was wishful thinking.

The public was on the Rescue Mission’s side. Of the 19 citizens who voiced their opinions about the re-zoning request at the first hearing on September 5th, three-quarters of them spoke in favor, while just five testified against. This overwhelming public support for the Rescue Mission was also evident in letters written to the Planning Commission after it solicited more input from residents. More than 30 letters poured in, favoring the new shelter nearly two-to-one.

One letter from J.R. Kidney, a police officer in Pottawatomie County for nearly two decades, gave a first-hand account of the need for another shelter. “I have had to help many people over the years find shelter, whether it is for a victim of domestic abuse or a homeless family,” Kidney wrote. “There are times when we are unable to get people the help they need at the facilities that are currently in place. Many times we cannot use those facilities for reasons due to their rules, no room etc.” Others like Linda Holley pointed to the inadequate supply of family shelter units in town. “It is heartbreaking to see a family torn apart when their child has to be taken away because there are not enough places in our town for families such as this to be sheltered together.”

But at that first hearing, Justin Erickson, the city’s Community Development Director, presented the staff report on the Rescue Mission’s proposal. It was highly critical, questioning both the need for another shelter and the Rescue Mission’s ability to effectively serve the homeless. The Planning Commission agreed to study the matter further and hold a second hearing on September 17th.

SHAWNEE’S DEFINING DIVISIONS

Poverty in Shawnee is never just about poverty. It’s also about race and history.

Like many areas of Oklahoma, the land in and around Shawnee was originally given to Native tribes that the federal government had forced off of their original land following the Civil War, including the Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, Shawnee, and Pottawatomi.

But, as was the case throughout our nation’s sordid 19th century westward expansion, what was given to the Native Americans in Shawnee did not stay with them for long. Prospectors and settlers began making forays during the 1870s, exacerbated by the construction of the transcontinental railroad through Oklahoma. By 1889, the U.S. government began officially allowing white settlers to develop Shawnee, breaking its earlier treaty with the local Indian tribes. It’s been a predominantly white city ever since.

Today, Shawnee is a small city about 40 minutes southeast of Oklahoma City. Though the city is just the 14th biggest in Oklahoma, it claims a number of notable former residents, including ex-Governor Brad Henry and actor Brad Pitt.

Shawnee's Santa Fe Depot Museum. Many of the city's homeless sleep or pass time in the surrounding area.

Shawnee’s Santa Fe Depot Museum. Many of the city’s homeless sleep or pass time in the surrounding area.

CREDIT: flickr user reweston-sat

Unsurprisingly, the economic disparity between whites and Native Americans that began in the 19th century persists to this day. Poverty in Shawnee has a distinctly Native American flavor. More than one in three American Indians living in the city is in poverty, double the rate of whites. In total, nearly one in four Shawnee residents lives below the poverty level, 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

This racial inequality and elevated level of poverty is reflected in the homeless population as well. The city as a whole is more than three-quarters white, but the homeless population skews heavily Native American. While American Indians make up around 13 percent of Shawnee, Blankenship estimates they account for around 40 percent of the homeless and needy people he serves. Recent counts have found between 100 and 125 homeless people living in Shawnee. For a city of 30,000, this means that approximately four of every 1,000 residents are homeless, double the national rate.

Despite significant demand, today Shawnee has just one shelter to care for homeless men and women in need, a local Salvation Army that has 20 beds for men and 10 for women.

CONFLICTING EXPLANATIONS

Opponents of the plan, both citizens and officials, center their argument on two claims: first, that there was no need for a second shelter, and second, that the Rescue Mission shelter would hurt nearby property values and this was a cost that outweighed any benefits the project might bring.

Yet there is an inherent contradiction in making these claims simultaneously. Either there wasn’t demand for more shelter beds, in which case there would be little impact on the surrounding neighborhood, or there was demand for more shelter beds, in which case another shelter was necessary.

One of those claiming that no need for additional shelter existed was Harrod. When ThinkProgress asked him about Roy’s death and whether critics who say there aren’t enough shelter beds in Shawnee, especially in the wintertime, are right, he responded, “That’s not true,” claiming that Roy had willfully decided not to go to the Salvation Army because it had too many rules. Similarly, according to the Commission’s staff report, the Rescue Mission “has not provided any demonstration of need” that the Salvation Army can’t cover.

Most interested citizens disagreed with this conclusion, even Salvation Army volunteers. “There simply is too much need for one organization to cover all the problems of the needy and homeless in our area,” one Shawnee Salvation Army volunteer, Raymond H. Mullen, wrote.

During the summertime, there is less demand for shelter, but winter is another matter. This past December, the Salvation Army averaged a 105 percent occupancy rate, which spiked to 140 percent on some nights.

Though Lt. Philip Canning, who serves as Corps Officer of the Shawnee Salvation Army, told ThinkProgress he had concerns that the Rescue Mission would be competing for the same charity dollars, he still saw a need for a second shelter. “If there was another shelter that were to open, it would be good for those couple of months where we have that extreme cold weather,” he said.

As a safety measure, the Salvation Army has a policy that when the temperatures outside dip below freezing, they will let in anyone who needs to come warm up, regardless of whether there are any vacant beds. But that far from solves the matter. Even if there’s ostensibly enough room on the floor for someone to sleep, it can still get quite cramped. As a result, some people won’t come if they don’t think there’s enough space for them and their belongings.

Canning relayed the story of one individual who stayed down the road from the Salvation Army this winter but wouldn’t come in, even for the night. “He has a bunch of stuff that he’s collected and he couldn’t bring that much inside because we don’t have the space for everyone to store,” Canning noted. In a choice between warmth and your possessions, in other words, many will opt for the latter. Other people have been banned for breaking a rule, such as showing up intoxicated, or have had a bad experience at the shelter in the past and don’t want to return.

The other reason that residents gave for opposing the Rescue Mission proposal was its supposed effect on property values in the area. One of the primary people leading the charge was Kaye Steele Harrod. “Mrz Lizzies [Harrod’s home rental company] has invested $425,000 to $450,000 within 300 feet of the Mission and now property values have plummeted,” she wrote in a letter to the Commission, saying that tenants had recently moved out “due to their fears and not feeling safe and secure in their homes.” If the Commission were to approve the re-zoning request, she warned, “We would be promoting all homeless to come to Shawnee and receive free room and board.”

The staff report conceded that “a review of research papers and literature provides no information that homeless shelters decrease property values,” but it still argued that, “Based on letters from the public, the current limited operations at the facility (204 N. Louisa),” referring to the Rescue Mission’s food pantry and meal service, “appear to have had major impacts on the neighborhood.”

But who wrote these letters? Of the 12 letters submitted to the Commission, five came from Kaye, Harrod’s daughter, or Harrod’s son-in-law. In other words, nearly half the opposition to the Rescue Mission came from relatives of Harrod. His son-in-law, Kevin Hanna, who also rented homes around Shawnee, wrote in opposition because he was “very fearful of what the effects will be if the SRM becomes a full-time shelter that provides housing.”

ThinkProgress identified four rental properties owned by Kaye that are within two blocks of the Rescue Mission and reviewed property records as well as tax assessments over the past five years to see whether their claim that property values have plummeted had any merit. Zillow estimates that the property values have actually increased an average of 7 percent in the past five years. In addition, the Pottawatomie County Tax Assessor’s office confirmed that the taxable value of each property was unchanged since 2009.

Commissioner Harrod said his wife’s vehement opposition to the re-zoning request had no bearing on his vote. “She just has one or two units that are close to there, but that didn’t have anything to do with it,” he told ThinkProgress. When asked whether he and his wife worried about the Rescue Mission’s impact on their property values, as she had written in her letter, he also denied it: “No, we’ve owned that property since the 90s and we don’t intend to sell it, so it don’t matter.”

That wasn’t the only claim in his wife’s letter that Harrod outright denied. Though she had written, “Recently my tenants have moved out due to their fears and not feeling safe and secure in their homes,” he told ThinkProgress that the Rescue Mission hasn’t had any impact at all on their ability to rent nearby properties. “Those two properties have been rented even with them feeding and the people there through the week and stuff like that, so it’s not bothered the rental property at all. They’re rented and they’ve never been not rented,” he said.

Either way, the Harrod family’s letters achieved their intended effect. On October 10th, the Planning Commission unanimously rejected the Rescue Mission’s re-zoning application. When the matter came before the City Commission, which had the final say, on November 5th, Commissioner Harrod moved that the re-zoning request be denied and cast the first “no” vote. The Rescue Mission lost six to one. Without permission to re-zone the building, the group had no choice but to return the $450,000 grant. The shelter that seemed like a sure thing at the beginning of the year was now dead.

Harrod wasn’t done, though. Two weeks later, he requested that the Commission place a moratorium on the opening of any new homeless shelter in Shawnee. His daughter was one of the few who testified in favor. The motion passed five to one.

Homeless advocates felt like they’d reached a new low. They were wrong.

FIXING THE “HOMELESS PROBLEM”

Just as the city was considering whether or not to approve the Rescue Mission’s request, they were also undertaking a new initiative: Reimagine Downtown Shawnee.

The Shawnee Chamber of Commerce commissioned this downtown revitalization study in autumn 2012 with the purpose of “reinvigorat[ing] Shawnee’s historic downtown through a targeted list of achievable and long-lasting economic and urban design initiatives.” One strategy that the plan proposed was to “Eliminate the perception of poor safety,” singling out “15-20 street homeless at any given time” as a contributing factor. It called for “improved public safety features and homeless services” to address the “homeless problem.”

Downtown Shawnee has seen better days. What was once a thriving commercial area is now a shell of its former self. After a mall was built on the north side of town, many businesses that had been downtown moved that way. As a result, the Salvation Army’s Canning noted, there were a large number of vacancies downtown, which were soon filled by various social service agencies. It’s not surprising, in other words, that you would find homeless people in the general vicinity of agencies that serve the homeless.

But in late 2012 and 2013, Shawnee began waging a widespread campaign to push homeless people out of downtown, if not out of town entirely. The centerpiece of this anti-homeless-people push was new regulations handed down by the Shawnee Parks Department.

One of the new regulations was to shut off water and electricity in some of the parks where homeless people often congregated. James Bryce, Shawnee’s Director of Operations who oversees the Parks Department, told ThinkProgress that he believed homeless people were using the public resources too much.

The same story was behind Bryce removing all of the old park benches. Homeless people sometimes slept on benches at night instead of the cold ground, so he made the decision to remove them until they could be retrofitted with a bar in the middle to prevent anyone from lying down. (The benches have yet to be put back in.) Bryce also had a park gazebo closed down for months because, in his words, “We had people living in it, and that’s not what it’s designed for.”

In addition, Bryce stopped giving permits to charities and church groups that wanted to hand out food in the parks. “We have a lot of events that come through here that call and reserve specific areas of the park to do events in,” Bryce told ThinkProgress. But “these other organizations that feed the homeless in the park, I don’t reserve the park for them.” Charity groups used to try to follow the law and get permits, but after so many rejections, they’ve given up. Still, Bryce noted that he doesn’t actively try to stop a group from handing out food in the park.

Cities that have used similar tactics to push homeless people out of the public eye often try to downplay their result, or at least pretend as though they’re not targeted at homeless people. Not Shawnee. When ThinkProgress spoke to Bryce, he did not deny the intent or target of these new regulations. “Some of the new things that we’re trying to implement, we don’t need that kind of congregation in the park,” he said. They were “decisions that were made in an effort to move some people on from loitering.”

Bryce did get cagey, however, when asked about which higher-ups had helped him create the new regulations. “I would rather not say,” he replied, but did mention that he’d consulted with both city officials and private citizens.

One thing is clear, though. Each regulation was designed to or had the effect of making life even more inhospitable for the city’s homeless population. If they don’t like it, the thinking went, they can go somewhere else. It was self-deportation — not for immigrants, but for homeless people.

Many localities employ one or two of these types of regulations that criminalize people for being homeless. Harrisburg wouldn’t let church volunteers feed the homeless in a public parking lot. Tampa passed an ordinance banning people from sleeping in public areas. Palo Alto criminalized sleeping in cars. Florida bars asking drivers for money. But no city comes close to Shawnee in terms of the number and comprehensive nature of new regulations designed to criminalize homelessness.

And yet, even these new regulations weren’t the end of Shawnee’s war on its homeless population.

VIGILANTE JUSTICE

As city officials began enforcing the new park regulations, a private group of citizens sprung up to dole out what the city cannot: vigilante justice.

Beginning in the summer of 2013, Jim Kinnamon, a recently retired veteran who has lived in town for 60 years, decided he had had enough with the homeless population in Shawnee. Along with some others he knew in town, he organized a group known as “Shawnee Proud, Pott. County Strong” under the auspices of a citywide beautification campaign. In reality, the group began waging what one local TV station, KFOR, described as a “war on [the] homeless.”

Jim Kinnamon's group approaching a homeless man living in the woods last year

Jim Kinnamon’s group approaching a homeless man living in the woods last year

CREDIT: Jim Kinnamon’s Facebook page

By September, Kinnamon and his group had destroyed more than two dozen camps where homeless people slept. According to KFOR’s local news report, “They gave them three days to pack up and move out, and then leveled the area with a wood chipper.” The move, KFOR wrote, was part of an effort “to drive out the homeless population.”

One challenging aspect of being homeless is simply not having a place to store your stuff. Many people improvise, finding shrubs or other hiding spots to store possessions and food. But without a place of their own, their things often aren’t safe, either from burglars or just someone with a wood chipper.

Kinnamon defended the group’s actions as necessary. “We can’t continue to let them just ruin our downtown by using it as their restroom, we can’t do that,” he told KFOR. But the group’s antipathy for the homeless was laid bare on Kinnamon’s Facebook page. Comments ranged from accusing homeless people of faking it — “these people are not poor” — to comparing them unfavorably to Neanderthals — “cavemen lived better than this.these [sic] guys here are just too lazy to work and too stupid to steal.” Others weighed in as well. “Bums are just that, they leach off of kindness,” Melody Wood Gunter wrote. “Maybe we need signs in the park that read, ‘DO NOT FEED THE BARES,’” Jerry Duff offered before calling on officials to ticket and tow a charity group that was feeding the homeless for not having a permit. One woman even complained that if a homeless person freezes to death, “we as tax payers have to pay to bury them. Plus it makes a town or city look bad for not doing enough, when one of these bums die.”

ThinkProgress spoke with Kinnamon by phone about whether it was true that he and others in the group were out searching for and destroying homeless people’s possessions. He didn’t deny that the group had razed as many as 50 camps with a wood chipper, but according to him, most of them weren’t in use. They “had molded mattresses, the tents were falling down, nobody was occupying them,” he claimed, despite the fact that disrepair is not a sure sign of abandonment. He conceded that the group had destroyed two camps that they knew were occupied, but justified the move by noting that the campers were given advance notice and allowed to take what they wanted before the group got rid of whatever was left.

It wouldn’t exactly be right to call Shawnee Proud a vigilante group. That’s because their operations weren’t just ignored by city officials, nor were they simply condoned. They were actively celebrated.

A handwritten letter from Shawnee Mayor Wes Mainord thanking Kinnamon and his group for "truly making a difference"

A handwritten letter from Shawnee Mayor Wes Mainord thanking Kinnamon and his group for “truly making a difference”

CREDIT: Jim Kinnamon’s Facebook page

On multiple occasions in the fall of 2013, city officials met with Kinnamon and Shawnee Proud to discuss their efforts. On December 20, Kinnamon proudly posted a thank-you note he’d received from the mayor. “The mayor is behind everything we do and all of our efforts,” he told ThinkProgress. Until recently, a glowing video featuring him was on the Shawnee government’s homepage.

Kinnamon argued that issues with the homeless are springing up now because Shawnee provided more services than other cities nearby, leading the homeless to gravitate there. “Services are attracting them,” he said, a common refrain used by many across the country to oppose funding for combating homelessness.

LISTENING TO THEIR NEEDS

It’s tempting to paint a man like Kinnamon and his group as one-dimensional, but that wouldn’t be fair. He is a brackish man, fond of the tough-love mentality. One can readily understand his motivations; who wants to see litter strewn about in their community, after all? “We wanted to clean up, but we wanted to help them at the same time,” he told ThinkProgress. “To some you might seem like an enemy, to some you seem like a blessing.”

Indeed, a couple months after Shawnee Proud began, they held a town hall meeting with homeless people and their allies to discuss criticisms that had been lobbed at the group. A chief complaint from the homeless was that the group only saw them as problems. “It would be nice if somebody walked up to us and said ‘Can we help you? What can we do for you?’ But I don’t see that happening,” one homeless man, James, told KFOR.

Shawnee Timeline

Though Shawnee Proud began as an organization oriented toward “cleaning up” the city, Kinnamon concedes that its mission expanded following this meeting to heed James’ advice. “We’re going to meet with the folks and find out what their needs are and when we find out what their needs are, we’ll know what to do,” he told ThinkProgress.

Indeed, he soon undertook a personal effort to provide electric wheelchairs to any homeless person who needs one. And where before he focused solely on “cleaning up” public spaces, he now periodically goes out in the dead of night to check on guys sleeping under the bridges and elsewhere. “I’ve been very fortunate in my lifetime to not be where these guys are,” he noted, even though he “could’ve been a few times.”

One cold December night, Kinnamon found a homeless man, Donald, under the same bridge he’d seen him a number of times before. He went and got a friend, Michael Dodson, who is Native American, because he thought he might be better able to connect with Donald, also Native American. The two pleaded with Donald to try to get shelter, even if the Salvation Army was crowded. They brought him back to Dodson’s house, let him shower while they picked him up some clothes and KFC, then took him to the Salvation Army, where they finally convinced him to stay for a few days. Two days later, a major cold spell hit. “I think that we saved Donald’s life,” Dodson remarked.

Further complicating a cursory view of Kinnamon is the fact that he is highly critical of the City Commission for rejecting the Rescue Mission’s re-zoning request. “There needs to be a place for the homeless to be able to spend overnight,” he told ThinkProgress. He pointed out the hypocrisy in many of his neighbors’ attitudes towards the homeless: they don’t want to see homeless people in public, but they also don’t want a shelter that would allow them inside.

This NIMBYism is not unique to Shawnee. In Olympia, Washington, for instance, organizers have tried four times in the past two years to find a home for a new shelter, only to be rebuffed by nearby residents, despite support from the overall community.

Unlike Harrod and the City Commission, Kinnamon understands that shelter is a far preferable option to doing nothing. “I would just as soon them being inside of a shelter in a controlled environment, getting them fed and getting them counseled to and getting them strong physically, than I would have them turned loose in my backyard at night,” he said. He reserved choice words for the Commission: “There are people in this town, sir, that voted against it and they had their councilman vote against it that never come down to downtown Shawnee to see the situation.”

The Rescue Mission’s Blankenship said he doesn’t have much faith that the moratorium would be lifted soon. Still, he held out hope that by the end of 2014 they could try again to move forward with an overnight shelter. For his part, Harrod said the Commission would not revisit the issue until they had created uniform guidelines for opening a new shelter, a move he did not expect imminently.

204 N. Louisa Ave, the would-be home of Shawnee Rescue Mission's overnight shelter

204 N. Louisa Ave, the would-be home of Shawnee Rescue Mission’s overnight shelter

CREDIT: Google Maps

However the city decides to move forward, shelters are not a panacea for ending homelessness in Shawnee or anywhere else. They are, at best, a band-aid to stop the bleeding.

But that’s not to downplay the importance of shelters, either. Homelessness is an emergency situation, and shelters play a vital role while a more permanent solution can be found. Living on the street isn’t just detrimental for one’s long-term health and wellbeing — including a significantly increased risk for various diseases and a life expectancy 35 years shorter than the general population — it’s also incredibly dangerous in the short term, especially during the winter.

After Gary Roy’s death was announced on the Rescue Mission’s Facebook page, a number of their supporters left little to the imagination about who was to blame. “That’s so sad,” Amber Leonard wrote. “If only there was additional overnight shelters. No one should face a night like last night without shelter.” Dana Mounce Bowman was even more direct. In a comment leveled at the city government, “SHAME ON YOU and all the selfish people in warm home that fought against SRM having an overnight shelter. THIS MAN’s BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS!!!”

All deaths are tragic, but Roy’s was perhaps the cruelest of deaths: one that was preventable.

When Harrod announced his candidacy for City Commission in 2012, he made a telling point. “I feel I have shown in the past four years how one single commissioner can influence” Shawnee. The following year, he showed just how powerful a single commissioner can be.

Graphic by Adam Peck. Nicole Andolina and Mallak Anani helped research this article.

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