On the evening of a day that began with temperatures around seven degrees, the Letcher County Fiscal Court learned there are at least 350 homeless school-age children in Letcher Country who have no permanent place to lay their heads at night.
Letcher County Schools Homeless Liaison Virginia Hurst told the court that there is no room left in the Goose Creek Shelter, the only homeless shelter in the county, and that poverty and inadequate housing have led to a crisis. She added that applicants for space at the Goose Creek Shelter have to be approved and undergo a background check, which is a lengthy process. Need is often immediate in the case of homeless students.
Hurst said the schools provide food and clothing to the homeless students, but there are just no places for many of them to stay in Letcher County, and some have to be placed in other counties if they can be placed at all. She said finding a place for a homeless child to stay in Letcher County is a real challenge and that she found out that one 20-year-old high school student had been sleeping under a bridge in Mayking.
Second District Magistrate Sherry Sexton, who is employed with the Letcher County Board of Education, works with Hurst to help find funding for the homeless students, but she agreed that it is difficult to come up with enough grant funding to really do much. Sexton served as Homeless Liaison for nine years before Hurst took the job. Hurst said they hope to find funds for a centrally located shelter here.
Hurst told the court that homelessness does not always mean being outside with no structure, but living in substandard housing, often without electricity or adequate heat and running water is a problem too. She said the school system and relief agencies try to provide heat sources to people in these situations, but many kids in the system just do not have families. She talked about one 18-year-old who had no family and said she and other officials have tried to get him on an early graduation track so he could enlist in military service.
“That was his option,” said Hurst.
Judge/Executive Terry Adams said he had not been aware of the extent of the situation, but that he will begin immediately to work on a solution. He said a countywide coalition composed of volunteers and officials is needed to work on the problem and try to access sources of funding. Adams asked Hurst to come to his office when they can get together, so they can try to figure something out to help alleviate the problem.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness website says that at least seven percent of all homeless people in the United States live in rural areas. People who work with the homeless often refer to people who experience rural homelessness as the “hidden homeless” because it is less visible than urban homelessness. Some rural homeless people live in places that others do not see, such as sleeping in the woods, campgrounds, cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not fit for habitation. Other individuals and families in rural areas live in substandard housing or double up with family members or friends.
The same factors that contribute to urban homelessness, lack of affordable housing and inadequate income, also lead to rural homelessness. Historically, the greatest housing concern for rural Americans has been poor housing quality. Lack of income, high rates of poverty, and unemployment often lead to rural homelessness, which is most common in areas that have either experienced high economic growth, which drive up housing costs, or in areas with high rates of unemployment because of declining industries, such as farming, timber, mining, or fishing. According to the latest report by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for households living in non-metropolitan areas was $44,212, compared to $58,260 for metropolitan areas.
In other business, the court voted unanimously to transfer possession of the school properties of the Jenkins Independent Schools to the Jenkins School District. Whitesburg Attorney Randall Tackett, representing the Jenkins Board of Education, explained that in 1969, when the Jenkins School Board decided to build the “new” Jenkins High School and rebuild the Burdine School, state laws did not allow school boards to accumulate debt, so the accepted practice was for school systems to deed property to county courts which would then issue bonds to pay for the construction. The system has changed now and the Jenkins schools have all been paid for, but Tackett said that the actual transfer of property from the fiscal court to Jenkins Schools had never taken place. He asked the court if it would remedy the situation and said he had a transfer deed with him.
Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton said he had spoken with Tackett about the deeds and the proper course would be to declare the school properties in Jenkins surplus and then give them to Jenkins. Judge/Executive Adams said he had no objection but Fourth District Magistrate William “Cheddy” Smith, who served as county road foreman before his retirement, asked if there were county roads on the properties. Tackett said he does not think so and the deeds are the same as when Beth-Elkhorn Corporation transferred the property to the Jenkins Schools System. The court voted to begin the process of declaring the property surplus and re-deeding it to Jenkins Schools after making sure the deeds do not contain county roads.
The court voted unanimously to approve advertising for bids to repair damage to the Whitco Loop Bridge. Adams said the bridge had been damaged during floods last year and a large group of Whitco residents voiced their appreciation. Several also asked about another bridge that was damaged on Orchard Road, but Adams said it is a state-owned bridge and is scheduled to be replaced this year. He added that the application for funding has been filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the county is eligible for FEMA funding, He said the court has the available funds to go ahead and bid the project and begin work on the bridge and FEMA funds will replace the expenditures.
The court also received a check from County Court Clerk Winston Meade for excess fees collected last year. Meade presented the court a check for $17,000 as partial settlement of the total amount of $31,748.29, He said that when the audit is complete, he will present the remainder of $14,748.29. The County Court Clerk’s office collected a total of $5,635,184.49 last year and paid the court $283,685.97.
The court also voted to pay Judge/Executive Terry Adams’s bond, which is a state requirement. County Treasurer D.J. Frazier told the court the bond has already been paid but needs the court’s formal approval. The court members also agreed to table discussions of establishing a county law library at the request of County Attorney Hatton.
Harry Collins of the Letcher County Broadband Board reported that a board meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, January 23, at the Campbell’s Branch Community Center. The public is invited to attend. Collins said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program which he said will provide major funding for rural broadband. Collins also serves on the Letcher County Economic Development Committee and said he would attend the One East Kentucky meeting in Prestonsburg held on January 22.
County Attorney Jamie Hatton read a proclamation that named January as Radon Action Month. Adams said that free radon testing kits are available to the public at the Letcher County Health Department. The court also authorized Adams to engage with a contractor to fix the heat pump that served the portion of the courthouse where his office is located. Adams said it was “kind of cool” that morning. County Attorney Hatton said the repairs should be under the $20,000 level that requires an advertised bid and Adams can just get three quotes. Adams also said he has checked on the progress of the larger and more complex heat pump repairs for the Circuit Court Judge’s office and that repairs are proceeding.
Bank balances for county agencies as of December 31
• General Fund: $564,136.49
• Road and Bridge Fund: $810,145.85
• Jail Fund: $94,070.91
• LGEA Fund: $668,188.36
• Senior Citizens Fund: $227.96
• Forestry Fund: $20,111.99
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Depreciation Reserve: $30,779.65
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Debt Service: $283,411.88