By recent estimates, more than 112,000 people call Killeen home.

Unfortunately, on any given night, several hundred of those people may have nowhere to sleep.

But a new steering committee made up of community representatives hopes to change that reality by the first of next year.

Depending on zoning and funding, the committee hopes to have one of three potential sites up and running as a full-service homeless shelter in the next few months.

It's a project that is much needed and long overdue.

Dr. Alvin Dillard, the director of the Christian Assistance Network in Killeen, is spearheading the initiative to create the Heritage House shelter.

Already his committee has identified three potential sites for the shelter - the old downtown fire station, the former Bell Haven nursing home off Rancier Avenue, and a third, unnamed site.

Dillard described the fire station as having 10 beds and two private rooms upstairs and a large day room downstairs where the trucks were parked.

The old nursing home is larger, having formerly accommodated 150 beds, and has tree-shaded grounds. However, it is more than two miles from the city's center.

Dillard has a tiered plan for the shelter that would be addressed in phases.

The first tier would be a shelter for stays of one to three days, to be used in emergencies such as extremely cold weather, severe storms or following structure fires.

The second tier would be a transitional facility that would assist people in getting back into the workplace after loss of a job. A typical stay would be two weeks to a month.

The third tier would offer living space for up to three months for those who need job training or GEDs, with an emphasis on preparing them to seek employment.

The fourth tier would be an interim living facility, with stays up to a year.

The fifth tier would provide long-term housing for families who can't make ends meet, until they can qualify for Section 8 housing.

Dillard hopes to have a first-tier facility online by January.

The very real problem of homelessness - and the stigma attached to it - is something the community must address before a fully operational shelter can achieve long-term sustainability.

The familiar battle cry, "Not in my backyard!" is often heard when it comes to shelters and rehab facilities.

That should not be the case with the Heritage House project.

Dillard noted the shelter would not be merely a "flop house," where people go each night to get off the street.

Instead, he envisions the shelter as a place where they can get their lives together and transition back into the workplace.

Dillard also pointed out that many of the city's less fortunate don't fit the typical stereotype of "homeless" - sleeping in parked cars or doorways. Rather, many are between jobs, have lost their apartments and must find short-term accommodations.

A permanent, full-service shelter will provide the city's estimated 800 homeless residents a physical address to put on job applications, as well as a place to eat, shower and do laundry, Dillard said.

That boost, that continuity, is essential in giving the less-fortunate a chance in the job market - and to restoring self-esteem.

And as Dillard correctly observed, quality of life is important, no matter where you are.

The Heritage House group is looking at the shelter initiative as a primarily faith-based project with some grant funding. Already, the committee has identified 103 area churches that it will apprise of the project.

As Dillard sees it, the initiative needs the leadership of those who have a passion for it - namely the faith-based community. But it will require the support of the entire community - churches, businesses, city leaders and individuals - in order to succeed over the long term.

Over the years, Killeen officials have tossed around the idea of opening a homeless shelter, with no tangible results. Most recently, city council members discussed such a shelter as one possible use for the former First Baptist Church building, which the city purchased for $2 million in 2006.

The city is supportive and area churches are ready to get involved. Case workers and the Bell County HELP Center are prepared to help. An experienced consultant has been hired.

Bottom line, Dillard believes now is the time to act.

He's right. Killeen needs a dependable shelter - and sooner rather than later.

It's often been said that a society's greatness can be measured by how it treats the least fortunate of its citizens. The same can be said of a city.

In supporting the Heritage House initiative, the community has the opportunity to not only bring a little comfort to the less-fortunate among us, but to also ease their transition back to independence.

And in realizing that goal, we should all sleep a little better at night.

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