Extreme weather illuminates the situation faced by homeless people.

A community outreach to shelter those folks during intense summer heat or bitter winter cold is imperative, of course.

Still, the underlying reasons individuals and families wind up sleeping and living outside — in any season — deserve attention, too. Lost jobs, broken relationships, substance addictions, a disabling physical illness, death of a loved one and mental illnesses can unravel lives to the point of evictions and then homelessness. When people experiencing such predicaments unintentionally wind up on the street, a gap in a community's social network may be exposed.

Vigo County and the city of Terre Haute are not unique among communities trying to properly attend to homelessness. Nonetheless, the Terre Haute region, like others, has its own distinct contributing factors and consequences. Those issues are getting a deeper focus as a result of conversations between county health department officials and a county official who serves with the Wabash Valley Homeless Coalition.

Last week, County Commissioner Brendan Kearns told health department leaders and board members he suspects nearly 400 people were sleeping outdoors last week when temperatures soared into the mid-90s-degree range and the heat index neared 110 degrees. Overnight temperatures still remained in the high 70s. Warnings of heat stroke and exhaustion were issued by the National Weather Service.

Kearns' background in assisting the homeless population began well before his election to the county commission. He's delivered blankets and supplies to the homeless. He understands the complexities involved. Some people, for example, choose that lifestyle, Kearns pointed out. Others could include a young family, evicted from their residence, and sleeping outside. Also, there are county residents living in houses with no power, he said.

One initiative Kearns suggested to the health board would be to establish a homeless coordinator position within the health department. That person would direct homeless residents to available services and serve as the county's primary contact for those issues. Through his personal efforts and interactions with the Homeless Coalition, Kearns acknowledged he had informally "kind of become that guy, which is awesome," but his commissioner duties will inhibit his ability to continue handling such a role.

Joni Wise, the health department administrator, agreed the department would be the natural fit for a homeless coordinator, but said the concept itself was still being developed.

That study into giving the county a point person to coordinate actions to assist people without a home is a logical, prudent step. It could lead troubled folks toward available help, thus closing gaps in the social safety net. "It's a dire situation here," Kearns told the board, adding, "We're seeing more people in this situation."

The more effectively and humanely the county handles its most vulnerable residents, the stronger the community becomes.

Published editorials are the collective opinion of the Tribune-Star's Editorial Board and are independent of the newspaper's news gathering and coverage.

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