Homelessness numbers growing in region

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cape Girardeau County saw a decrease in homeless, while Scott County's numbers went up

People may not see them roaming the streets, or sleeping on a park bench, but they are here and they are homeless. They work during the day and in their cars at night, or maybe on a friend's couch.

They are the hidden homeless and their numbers are growing in Southeast Missouri.

Although the exact number of local homeless is difficult to track, the Missouri Housing Development Commission does take point-in-time counts on two designated days each year.

It's winter count, recently released, showed some Southeast Missouri counties with decreases and others with increases, but statewide the number of homeless who were counted rose from 1,931 in winter 2011 to 2,114 this winter.

The number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless in eight Southeast Missouri counties -- Cape Girardeau, Perry, Bollinger, Scott, Stoddard, Wayne, Mississippi and New Madrid -- increased slightly from 216 in the winter 2011 point-in-time count to 222 in the winter 2012 count.

Cape Girardeau County saw a decrease in homeless, from 124 in winter 2011 to 99 in winter 2012, but Scott County's homeless increased from 61 to 82 and Wayne County's homeless grew from zero to 15. Other Southeast Missouri counties numbers remained steady.

While these are legitimate numbers, Jernigan said there are many more local people who are homeless that are not countable because they are staying with other families.

"That's the big population that is unknown -- those that are doubling up," Jernigan said. "There are so many more."

Putting the squeeze on family finances is the fact that over the past 20 years, the cost of living in the United States has increased by almost 90 percent, while average incomes have only increased 25 percent, according to research by the United Way Worldwide. In addition, more than 40 million Americans work in jobs that pay low wages and do not provide basic health and retirement benefits, according the United Way's report.

"That's why we see more and more people in need. Because our utilities are more, food is more, gasoline is more, everything costs more and it keeps going up," Jernigan said. "A lot of people were barely squeaking by and now all these increases are putting them over the edge."

The Salvation Army in Cape Girardeau has always assisted homeless individuals, but case manager Tina Rodgers said she is seeing more families looking for a place to stay this year than ever before.

"We try to get them into shelters, but right now there are just three and sometimes that may not be a possibility," Rodgers said. The Salvation Army refers people to the Amen Center in Delta, the Revival Center in Jackson. The New Beginnings House of Refuge in Cape Girardeau accepts individuals, but isn't an option for families.

"I know several who are sleeping in their cars right now. It's going to get worse," Rodgers said.

So far this year, the Salvation Army has provided 1,739 nights of emergency lodging. It can provide an average of three nights for someone in need. Typically, they would put them up in the Relax Inn on Morgan Oak Street, but it has closed, leaving the Salvation Army with one less option, Rodgers said.

Since 2009, the number of people seeking emergency lodging assistance has steadily increased each year, she said.

The stereotypical homeless person who has a mental issue or drug and alcohol problem and is on the streets isn't who Rodgers is seeing on a daily basis now, he said. It's people who are working, but don't make enough money to pay their rent and utilities, she said. Or it's someone who has had major health problems and is either unable to work because of a medical condition, or gotten behind because of medical bills, she said.

"What I'm seeing the bigger part of is those that are hidden. That you don't see that they are homeless. If you're not working in it, you don't actually see them. If they have a vehicle, they're staying in it. If they don't, they're trying to find somebody to stay with," Rodgers said.

In an effort to try to help people stay in their homes, the Salvation Army this year has provided 1,808 people with rental assistance and distributed more than 4,400 bags full of groceries.

Those hoping for income-based housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are simply out of luck in Cape Girardeau County. There is a two-year waiting list for HUD assistance, and currently the list is closed, said Denise Wimp, executive director of First Call for Help.

"You can't even get on it because they have more names than they can work off," she said.

HUD uses a guideline that not more than 30 percent of one's income should be spent on housing, she said. If an individual receiving HUD assistance has a rent that is higher than 30 percent of their income, the federal government pays the difference to the landlord.

"That makes things more difficult when they're left to try to find rental property where the landlord charges whatever they want to charge. It's a private business and they do whatever they've got to do to make their business work," she said. There is some HUD housing for senior and disabled individuals, but not enough, she said.

Wimp has seen more calls at First Call for Help from Scott County, where the point in time count indicated an increase in homeless individuals.

"There are just fewer resources in those rural areas," she said. "But it's happening everywhere. People are losing jobs or the jobs they have aren't paying enough to cover the cost of things."

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

Pertinent address:

701 Good Hope Street, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

430 Broadway Street, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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