Parks department seeks community partners to address homelessness

Around a dozen homeless people are living in Seymour’s parks.

They are finding shelter in dugouts, shelter houses and tunnels on playground equipment.

During a recent Seymour Parks and Recreation Department Board meeting, Director Stacy Findley said she wanted to make the board aware there has been an increase in homelessness in the city’s parks and she is working on local collaborations to help those people.

“I’m going to start making those connections. I’ve already started those,” she said. “I feel like we have to do something, so this is just announcing to the board I’m going to make an effort to see what we can do, especially because it’s getting cold.”

She recently talked to Lindsay Sarver with Anchor House Family Assistance Center and Pantry in Seymour to see how the parks department can help be part of the solution.

“I feel like shelters play a piece of the pie with homelessness, but what we have found is that a lot of the folks that are living in our parks for one reason or another do not want to be part of a shelter,” Findley said. “They’ve been there, and that’s not what they want to do; however, they can’t live in our parks.”

The parks have hours of operation, and there have been occasions where people who stay overnight in the parks have caused problems. Program Director Chad Keithley said if they are not respectful enough to respect the parks, police can be called to arrest them for criminal trespassing.

Findley said the parks department can’t solve the issue of homelessness alone. Sarver suggested bringing in the Healthy Jackson County coalition, and Findley said it’s possible to form a subcommittee within that initiative to discuss homelessness. Findley also said faith-based and mental health organizations may need to be involved.

“I think that more than anything, the parks department needs to seek out additional partners to address the issue of homelessness in our parks. We’re not going to solve this (alone),” she said. “We want to be part of the solution, but we also feel like we have to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Seymour isn’t alone with this issue. Findley said parks departments across the country are facing it, too.

Parks board member Art Juergens asked where homeless people in Seymour can stay, and Findley said Anchor House has two shelters — one for families and the other for families and individuals.

“The issue is they have certain requirements, and you have to be part of their program,” she said. “I know more than one of the folks that are staying in our parks have been part of their program and that’s just not something they want to do. Anchor House can’t make them be part of their program.”

Board member Kendra Zumhingst said some people can’t stay in the shelters because they have pets, and some couples who aren’t married don’t stay there because they won’t be able to stay together.

“People don’t want to separate,” she said. “A lot of people have that issue when they are going into a shelter. They would rather be outside than not be able to say goodnight to someone. It’s hard for us to grasp, but we just don’t realize that level of this is the only person that you have in your life that’s on your side.”

Besides parks, Zumhingst said homeless people in the city are couch surfing, living in hotels and near rivers and railroad tracks and staying in campers, camper shells and vehicles, among other places. In other words, they don’t have permanent housing.

The homeless population in Seymour includes around 200 kids, she said.

“I wholeheartedly know that it’s a real problem,” Zumhingst said. “It’s a real problem everywhere — big cities, small cities. We’re definitely not going to solve this problem tomorrow, so I commend you (Findley) for being open-minded enough to look for collaboration because it’s a big, big monster.”

Findley said she also is concerned about the department’s employees who go to the parks on a daily basis in the morning to do cleanup and find a homeless person asleep, not knowing if they are alive or not since they don’t have a blanket or enough clothing on to keep them warm.

“The amount of trauma that it would cause a parks person to stumble upon someone who has passed away as a result, whether it be homeless or drugs, I don’t wish that upon anyone,” Findley said.

While employees are trained in administering first aid, CPR and overdose reversal medications, Findley said it’s still a true concern.

“We ultimately want the best outcomes for people in general,” she said.

Juergens asked what is done when a parks employee finds a homeless person. Keithley said they can be asked to leave if the park has been rented for an event, but Findley said they may just move on to a different park.

While attending a recent National Recreation and Park Association event, Keithley said for a parks agency to be eligible for one of the highest awards, it has to have some type of plan in order for the unhomed.

That’s just another reason why the department wants to take this issue seriously.

“I’m receptive. I’m open. If you know of any organizations or contacts, I’m open to that,” Findley said. “I think as a community, it’s just something we have to keep working at. We have to keep talking about it.”