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Trimming Welfare Rolls One Family at a Time : Kentucky: “Mentor couple” lives with the family, teaching about budgeting, parenting, working, cooking.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Although Sherry Cyrus and her two preschool children didn’t fit the bureaucratic definition of homeless, living in a three-bedroom house with six other people hardly felt like having a home.

Neither did the place she rented during the summer for $100 a month--a one-bedroom, thin-walled, unheated shack deep in a hollow.

“We couldn’t have lived there in the winter, and there wasn’t enough room in my mom and dad’s house. We were living four to a bedroom and it was very small,” Cyrus said.

As a 24-year-old single mother of two without a job, her options were as limited as their living quarters. “I probably did not have much hope of ever having a home of our own,” she said.

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But the holiday season found Cyrus sitting in a living room with a Christmas tree decorated with popcorn strands and crepe paper, and her 3-year-old son, Austin, dashing to his bedroom to show off a closet full of toys.

“They really like it here, and they’re well taken care of,” she said of Austin and his 4 1/2-year-old sister, Dorothy Alice. “But I tell them we’ve got one more move to make.”

That was into a two-bedroom trailer home at the first of January as the first graduates of an experimental approach to the problems of homelessness and overcrowded housing in this corner of poverty-pocked Appalachian Kentucky.

If things go as planned, Sherry Cyrus and her children will have not only a stable home, but she also will make another move she’s dreamed of--off the welfare rolls.

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“So many people never get off that list. We don’t want to perpetuate that,” said the Rev. Ralph Beiting, who designed the Good Samaritan Home, a house in a middle-class neighborhood in this community of 2,000 people in which one homeless family at a time will live temporarily with a mentoring couple.

Beiting, a Roman Catholic priest, has been in Appalachia for four decades. He founded the Christian Appalachian Project, an ecumenical organization that provides a variety of services, from day care to housing repairs, in communities scattered through the mountains of eastern Kentucky.

“Our homelessness is totally different from that in Washington, D.C., or New York City,” Beiting said. “Here, we don’t have that kind of problem you see there, with people sleeping on sidewalks.”

Instead, homeless advocates say, you might find families packed into shanties, school buses or chicken coops, or other stressful, overcrowded conditions, such as when Sherry Cyrus and her children stayed in the same small house with her parents, two grandparents, a niece and a nephew.

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“The kind of thing that it does to you mentally and physically when you get into a situation like that, with no other options--you can see the pressure building up,” said David Lollis, who heads the Berea-based Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, which helps low-income families with home financing.

The overcrowding often is worsened by a lack of modern basics such as telephones, adequate electricity or plumbing.

“People living without any sanitary facilities, carrying water from a creek 200 yards away--you may have a roof over your head, but really don’t have adequate shelter,” Lollis said.

Studies released last year by the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky found that 31% of eastern Kentuckians lived in poverty, that unemployment exceeded 50% in some communities, and that in the poorest counties, 10% of the homes had little or no plumbing, nearly 12% lacked complete kitchens and 20% had no phones.

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The Kentucky Housing Corp., a state agency, estimated the state’s homeless in the summer of 1993 at 5,600 people, based on surveys of not only shelters, but police departments, libraries and other places where people showed up looking for a place to sleep. Agency analyst Natalie Hutcheson said the estimate, in a state of 3.8 million people, didn’t include the hordes living in overcrowded housing.

“Their history and culture is that they take care of their own and make do with what they have,” said Gerry Martin, who runs the Perry County Community Ministries shelter in Hazard. “If my brother loses his job, we’re all going to stay in my house.”

Her 20-bed shelter, one of about half a dozen in eastern Kentucky, was filled in early January as temperatures dropped to zero. It included a mother with four children brought in by police after they were found living without heat.

Rather than operating a large shelter, the Christian Appalachian Project aims at permanence.

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“We take it one family at a time and focus our whole program on that family. We try to give them the skills to be a family,” Beiting said. “If we can turn six families a year back into the community, we’ve accomplished something.”

The family receives shelter for about two months in the home, designed somewhat like a duplex but with a common kitchen, dining area and living room.

The mentoring couple helps the family set up a budget; learn to cook nutritious, low-cost meals; explore job and housing opportunities; and helps with transportation, obtaining medical care, and cutting through the red tape of assistance programs.

Counseling and discussions of everything from child discipline to religion also take place.

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“You sit and eat with them, and you listen and try to answer questions. You try to do everything as a volunteer family that you would do as a real family,” said Tom Darland, who serves with his wife, Betty, as the pioneer “house parents.” “We sat up talking with Sherry until 11 o’clock Sunday night.”

Fred Karnas, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the temporary “adoption” of a homeless family by a mentoring family has been tried in urban situations.

“For the most part, from the experiences that I have heard about, that’s a very difficult situation to make work,” he said. The homeless family is likely to be under heavy stress, and “the other family has to be extraordinary.”

“But the emotional relationships that can be developed in a positive situation can be very beneficial,” Karnas added.

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The Darlands came here last year from Menominee, Mich., after reading about the project in the Catholic Digest, a nationally distributed newspaper.

“We’re not professional counselors,” said Tom, 54. “But we do have two successful children and a good marriage of 30 years. We had been talking about doing something like this as soon as our son and daughter were out of college.”

Darland, who was a bank president, and Betty, 53, a medical technician, volunteered to serve one year at the home, receiving a $100 monthly stipend and health insurance.

They made up the applications and background checks for prospective families and set rules that include no drug or alcohol use, restrictions on television viewing, a long list of chores and a 7 a.m. daily rising time.

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“The main requirement is that they do want to change,” Darland said. “If they don’t want to change their lives, they’re in the wrong place.”

The Darlands selected Sherry Cyrus’ family after a referral from the school where she was seeking her general equivalency diploma.

The young woman, married before she graduated from high school, was divorcing a husband serving a prison term in Ohio. She receives no support from him, and does not expect to.

Sherry wanted to learn how to drive a car, get a job, have a home and be a better mother, she told the Darlands.

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By the time she left, she was living on a budget, studying and working as a janitor at the high school, and had a state-funded baby-sitter to watch her two children when they’re not in preschool. With the Darlands’ help, she found a mobile home with federally subsidized rent.

She feels confident about her ability to run the new home.

On a door and a wall are the rules she sets for the children and a reward chart. When enough stickers are earned, they get a trip to Dairy Queen.

“I finally have my children under control,” she said. “They are my pride and joy, but I really didn’t know how to be a parent.

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“I’ve learned about responsibility, that I really have to take care of my kids. I’ve learned budgeting. They’ve taught me the meaning of real life. And now I’m ready to move on.”

Sherry also has revived her religious practice, another goal of the home. She received a chilling, full-immersion outdoor baptism two weeks before Christmas by the Faith Baptist Church she attends.

And she’s looking ahead to more accomplishments.

“I’ve been on the system five or six years now,” she said of welfare, “and I want off it. I hope to have a job and buy a piece of land. And I want my kids to go to college.”

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“We were told before we came down here that you probably can’t expect much,” Betty Darland said. “You just help one at a time. If you get one family back into society, that’s better than none.”


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