A fifth of Cape Girardeau residents in poverty from 2005 to 2009

Sunday, December 19, 2010
William Sheldon is staying at the Cape Girardeau Homeless Outreach Center in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

The Rev. Deborah Young has seen it all.

She's seen a 13-year-old mom-to-be with nowhere to turn. A mother and her six children living in a van. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with nothing and no hope.

"I have seen it all, and I have heard it all," Young said. "To put a sentence together, to sum it all up: It is very sad."

Young sees scores of the poor and homeless every month at the Cape Girardeau Homeless Outreach Center on Broadway. The shelter for homeless men and women and children was nearly full Friday. Its guests included William Sheldon, a 67-year-old transplant from Kansas City, Mo., who says he is down on his luck and looking for a new start in Cape Girardeau. He has stayed at the shelter for the past four months.

"I want to get myself together, try to find me a job and a place to stay and get up on my feet," said Sheldon, standing at the back of the shelter's thrift store.

The Homeless Outreach Center is the visible center of a poverty problem in Cape Girardeau that isn't always evident.

Between 2005 and 2009, 21 percent of Cape Girardeau residents lived in poverty, significantly higher than in Cape Girardeau County and in Missouri, according to demographic data released last week from the American Community Survey. The annual survey tracking the changing makeup of America, found 28 percent of Cape Girardeau's children living below the poverty level, and 9 percent of people 65 and older below the poverty line. In Cape Girardeau County, an estimated 15 percent of the population was considered living in poverty, and about 14 percent in Missouri.

Young found the data surprising; she believes the poverty rates in Cape Girardeau are too low. In the current sluggish economy, Young and other members in the human services field say they are seeing more people in need and that many more are falling through the cracks.

"We see it in our office with new clients, new faces every day, people needing help with rental assistance, utility bills and whatnot," said Erin Gotto, Cape Girardeau County community services representative for East Missouri Action Agency.

Gotto could not provide statistics, but she said the agency has been hit especially hard this year, with need increasing significantly. Unemployment was 7.7 percent in the Cape Girardeau-Jackson metropolitan area in October, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Missouri's jobless rate remains about 9 percent. With a particularly cold late fall, the need for heating assistance and other services is expected to rise.

Gotto said job creation is critical to attacking the poverty problem.

"But we also need jobs where we are going to have something beyond minimum wage," she said. "When you are making minimum wage trying to support a family, there's no way that anyone can honestly do that."

Median household income in Cape Girardeau between 2005 and 2009, according to the census data, was $38,213, well under the county median of $43,639 per household and the state median income of $46,005.

Young said cutting into Cape Girardeau's poverty numbers will take a more coordinated community effort. She said it's not just about giving people a place to stay but a job, an education and ultimately a way out of poverty. As it stands, Young said, she sees rising numbers of the poor in Cape Girardeau.

"I see more children hurting. I see more single women come in for help. I see more veterans, the ones who have fallen through the cracks" in need of help, she said.

David Slaughter, a homeless shelter resident who claims he ended up flat broke after troubles with gambling, said he has lived at or below the poverty line for much of his life. He knows that for many there's a thin line between getting by and falling through.

"Take a look around," said Slaughter, 57. "Everyone knows someone that's homeless; they're just a paycheck away from being homeless themselves."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

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