Volunteers look for the homeless who 'disappear' in the suburbs

Monday, January 30, 2006

Group will search motels, campsites, abandoned buildings and parking lots.

ST. LOUIS -- Christine Hall doesn't fit most people's idea of homelessness.

She works at a Subway restaurant in O'Fallon. But the 24-year-old Hall was evicted Jan. 16 from her home in St. Charles when she couldn't keep up with the rent. Since then, she and her 1-year-old son, David, have been homeless, moving from one cheap motel to another.

She's one of the homeless people who blend in so well in the suburbs that many people doubt they exist.

"One of the toughest jobs we have is convincing some people that we're not making up this problem," Dottie Kastigar, program coordinator for the Community Council of St. Charles County, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The homeless out here may be harder to see, but they are all around, right beneath the surface."

On Tuesday, the council will conduct its third official homeless count for St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties. For one night, volunteers will search motels, campsites, abandoned buildings and parking lots find the area's homeless population. The federal government says anyone living full time in something designed for a temporary stay is considered homeless.

The count will help determine how much federal money the tri-county area will receive to help fight homelessness.

Last year Community Council volunteers counted 376 people. Officials expect more this year.

"We are getting better at this," Kastigar said. "We are learning where to look and whom to talk to."

Homeless advocates say many people believe the homeless are all in the cities, where most of the charitable services for them are provided.

"When you think of the homeless, you think of the bag lady," said Yvonne Vissing, an expert on homelessness from Massachusetts' Salem State College. "The problem is, in the heartland, that's the wrong image. The homeless person in rural America is just as likely to be someone making minimum wage, who misses a check or hits some hard times."

Sleeping in their cars

The National Coalition of the Homeless says the rural homeless are more likely to be white, married, female and employed. They generally have transportation and often use it for shelter.

"You wouldn't believe how common it is for us to hear about people sleeping in their cars in parking lots," Kastigar said. "Of course, those people are really hard to track down."

HUD requires regions to conduct a homeless count once every two years. More than 170 cities and counties will conduct the counts as a part of the federal push to end chronic homelessness by 2012.

Some areas conduct more frequent counts.

St. Louis officials have two homeless counts a year, one in the winter and one in the summer. Officials estimate the city has more than 2,000 homeless people.

In Illinois, the Madison County Community Development Department conducted its homeless count last week. Officials say about 1,500 homeless people have visited one of the county's seven publicly funded shelter homes.

The Community Council of St. Charles County performed its first homeless count in 2004. Kastigar said volunteers struggled early.

"Lots of barns out here to hide in," Kastigar said. "And these are people who don't necessarily want to be found. They still have a lot of pride."

"Truck Stop" Paul Kruse, founder and head case worker for First Step Back Home, a homeless ministry, is deeply involved in fighting homelessness.

For the past year, Kruse, 59, has paid for homeless people to stay in area motels. The money comes from donations, much of it through the West-Plex Community Church in Foristell.

Kruse, a handyman, will pay for a homeless person to stay in a motel for three nights, no questions asked. They will receive more help if they look for work. In the past year, he's helped 190 homeless people.

Kruse fills a vital need in the area. Kastigar says the tri-county area has only two emergency shelters: the Salvation Army's shelter in O'Fallon and the Youth in Need shelter in downtown St. Charles.

The two shelters can serve at total of about 40 people at a time, and neither will house single men.

It was Kruse who helped Christine Hall get a room at the Budget Inn last week, after she had stayed a week in another motel off Interstate 70. She had to move there after she was unable to pay the rent at her apartment in St. Charles. Family tension prevented her from moving back home.

Kruse said he was touched by her situation and happy that she was already working.

As Hall's sister and mother helped her move, Hall broke down and cried.

"It's just very stressful," she said. "I didn't know where I was going to go tonight."

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