• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Working to provide a safe shelter for homeless

A BLESSING BOX in downtown Versailles helped Sherry Williams realize how many homeless people live in her community. Williams said she has created a nonprofit to raise money in order to open a homeless shelter here. She dedicated this blessing box to the memory of her father, James Coburn, a Vietnam War veteran. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

Many people in Versailles and Woodford County may not realize that homeless people are living in their community. It's an issue that became very real for Sherry Williams when she met some of the homeless after placing a blessing box - containing food, clothes and personal care items - behind a building in downtown Versailles. Because of this and other life experiences, Williams came to the realization that "We really need to learn how to love one another more than what we are. And really take care of other people in our community instead of expecting them to go to another county. "They don't need a handout. They need a hand-up to get out from where they're at and not ever be there again." So when no one else in the community stepped up, Williams founded Unity Outreach, a nonprofit dedicated to providing shelter, food, support services and an avenue for self-sufficiency for the homeless in Woodford County. During her conversations with the homeless, Williams said, "I was always interested in hearing their stories, and I always wondered why they didn't want to leave Woodford County. "Many times," she continued, "it's because they have family here. Or their jobs are here." They are walking to work and living in their vehicles, with no gas money to get back and forth if they moved elsewhere, she added. Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott said Williams provided the city council with an update on efforts to help the homeless in the community several months ago. But without specific details on such unknowns as how a homeless shelter would be staffed, where it would be located and the concerns of neighbors, the mayor said it would be irresponsible for him to endorse opening a homeless shelter in Versailles. "I applaud the compassion of Sherry and the rest of the people that are on this," said Traugott, "but if there turn out to be unintended consequences and this thing goes amiss when it gets up and running, those resources (spent on a homeless shelter) could've been diverted to probably much better uses." Traugott said he supports getting to the root of why someone has become homeless and helping them get into programs so they can get help with issues such as drug abuse and mental health. "Solving those problems," he said, "is something that we ought to have a better handle on before we invest" in a homeless shelter. "I want to offer all of the help and assistance we can offer," Traugott said, "but I don't want to be a magnet for people who don't have the best of intentions." Williams said she estimates that Woodford County has 32 people who are homeless based on a homeless-count average for other counties in Kentucky (excluding Fayette and Jefferson counties). "I hear different levels of numbers," said Traugott, "(but) I'm not blind, so I see some of (the homeless in our community) with my own eyes." He said the issue of homelessness came up as recently as Tuesdaymorning at a department meeting with police. Williams said a nice crowd attended a public forum on July 13 when she officially launched this grassroots effort to open a homeless shelter in Versailles. She said 15 to 20 people are now attending regular meetings focused on this project to help the homeless who need a short-term shelter to get back on their feet. "It will be a 90-day maximum. It is not just a shelter. Remember, it's a way for people to get that hand-up not a handout. So it's meant to (be a way for them to) improve their lives," said Williams. For example, she said, services will be offered to help someone fill out a résumé and apply for jobs. Unity Outreach has already begun helping the homeless by providing free haircuts. "It's amazing," said Williams, "how they light up . something as simple as that." The Homeless Shelter Project of Versailles traces its origins back to March with that first blessing box. Nine blessing boxes are now located across the county - two in Midway and seven in Versailles, Williams said. Asked to explain the purpose of these blessing boxes, she said, ".Take what you need. Leave what you can. They're mostly filled with food. Sometimes, they're filled with personal hygiene items like toothpaste." With the high cost of hygiene items, she said, "I can see how someone who's homeless or stricken by poverty is unable to pay for these things." Anyone interested in making a tax-deductible donation or donating time and services to Unity Outreach: Homeless Shelter Project of Versailles may call Williams at 859-285-0546 or contact her at unityoutreach40383@gmail.com. Donations may also be sent to Unity Outreach, c/o Citizens Commerce National Bank, P.O. Box 1028, Versailles, KY 40383. Unity Outreach held its first-ever WOODford STOCK fundraiser concert on Oct. 21, and plan to make that an annual event, according to Williams. She said, "It was lightly attended this year," but around $2,000 was raised toward the ongoing effort to open a homeless shelter in Versailles.

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