By Mya Hudgins, Contributing Writer (Courtesy photo/The Bison)
In 2015, writer Scott Keys wrote an article entitled “Welcome To Shawnee, Oklahoma: The Worst City In America To Be Homeless” for the website ThinkProgress.
In it, he criticized the city for not developing additional shelters for the impoverished. He argued that without an overnight shelter available for the homeless, Shawnee didn’t prioritize that demographic.
However, that assertion may not be entirely accurate.
Pottawatomie County has around 236 non-profit organizations, and roughly less than half of those organizations help the poor, needy and the homeless.
In fact, according to Data USA, “22.9 percent of the population in Shawnee live below the poverty line, a number that is higher than the national average of 14.7 percent. The largest demographic living in poverty [in Shawnee, Okla.] is females between the age of 18-24.” That number has gained the attention of city leaders and its residents.
For many years now, the Shawnee community has been trying to help the plight of the homeless, and that effort extends to Bison Hill as well.
OBU has taken a stand to help those in need with the “On the Ground Ministry.” Such a ministry allows the campus to find ways to serve the community in which it stands—and there is a need.
“There is a substantial amount of homeless in Shawnee,” said Ashley Ellis, co-chair of On the Ground Ministry for Mission Shawnee.
“It is a problem that is noticed by many but helped by few. We often tell others that we are trying to help break the cycle of poverty that many of the people who are homeless are born into. Most of the homeless aren’t taken seriously and looked down upon even though most of them who we see on Sundays once had jobs that were well looked upon, but due to unfortunate events they either got laid off, sick or fell into substance abuse.”
Continued homelessness and an increased number of those living below the poverty line has gained the attention of this organization which endeavors to address the issue. Their most immediate issue at hand is basic food.
“At On the Ground Ministry, we feed meals to the homeless every Sunday,” Ellis said. “Local churches host each meal which can vary from home-cooked meals to the once a month pizza Sunday we have. Also, volunteers that are there are able to serve and help the homeless both physically and spiritually.”
Helping the impoverished in the community is their number one priority, she said. But their outstretched hand offers more than just food and other basic physical needs.
“This organization helps give people who are written off by society a sense of community and fellowship,” Ellis said.
“People come and go week by week, but there is an abundant amount of people who come every single week and have become friends with the volunteers and other people who attend. Every Sunday they know that there will be a roof over their head, a smiling face caring about them and a hot meal. That is something that money handed to them on the side of the street can’t always give them.”
Ellis said her heart goes out for those who are in need of food, shelter and love. She said many people have a hard time opening themselves to “those kinds of people.” People make excuses like “they should just get a job” or “is it not their own fault?” instead of just putting their self aside and helping.
“The homeless should be helped because we are all created in God’s image and someone’s social status, past mistakes and current struggles should not dictate whether they are worthy of the same help we would want to be given to us,” Ellis said.
“People who are in homeless situations often do not have the connections or the resources to get out of the situation like many of us think. Many people think they should just go get a job, but it’s hard to get a job when you don’t have a vehicle or a place to shower or any clean clothes to wear.”
Though this issue may not be discussed often among college students, there is a need for that very demographic to volunteer and show love toward those who need it.
“College students can volunteer their time to simply visit with the homeless,” she said. “Also, any sort of clothes and food donations are always appreciated.”
For On the Ground ministry, these college volunteers can try to meet the needs of these people. Ellis gave some examples of the biggest needs for the homeless.
“Skills training, clothing and just relationships to help with accountability. Many of the people simply need to know that someone cares about them and a source of motivation to get out of the situation that they are in.”
As On the Ground Ministry has been active for around four years; there is hope for more involvement in the future, and students can meet other volunteers each Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in Montgomery Hall.
“I would like to see more community involvement in actively helping the homeless get jobs and also have more respect for the homeless,” Ellis said. “I don’t want people who are homeless to be looked down upon simply because of the circumstance[s] they are in.”
As OBU student volunteers are putting a foot forward in helping, so has the 151-year-old organization, The Salvation Army.
“The Salvation Army is a church, the denomination of Christianity, [and] what we do is offer people soup, soap and salvation…we spread the gospel and help with utility bills, clothing and food vouchers and a place to say,” said Vergil Savage, social service director at The Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army is always trying to help those in need, no questions asked.
“There are no criteria; anyone who needs help, needs help no matter the situation they’re in,” Savage said. “You never know what happened to someone—if they need help they come in and apply to get some help.”
This organization also understands that sharing the gospel with the homeless and people in need helps them spiritually. Many of them respond better to the Gospel after their physical needs have been addressed.
“They don’t want to hear about Jesus when they’re hungry and stinky or don’t have a roof over their heads or even meet their basic needs,” Savage said. “After I’ve done that, then I want to tell them about Jesus.”
Just like On the Ground Ministry, The Salvation Army runs on volunteers every single day.
“We have a total of about twenty-five volunteers, so daily we need about ten to fifteen volunteers,” Savage said. “If you come in and fill out an application, we will put you to work wherever you have a passion for.”
Both organizations focus on providing many different kinds of aid, but Ellis said volunteers must remember to treat their charges with respect.
“I think it’s important for everyone to put themselves in each other’s’ shoes,” Ellis said.
“While we all can agree that being homeless would definitely be an undesirable and scary experience, not many of us think about the fact that the homeless are most often viewed as lazy people who deserve where they are because they made the wrong choices, that most homeless are druggies and that you need to be careful and stay away from someone who is homeless,” she said.
“I don’t think that many of us could imagine a life where our fellow human beings looked at us as though we were less than them simply because we have less than them. If people walking down the streets diverted their attention and their path to simply not come into contact with us or make eye contact with us. Being homeless carries shame in itself, but having others cast more shame on you instead of helping you hurts as well.”