Homeless numbers appear rising in Missouri's urban areas

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Missouri groups that provide services to the homeless are gearing up for a tough winter, as urban areas in particular see an increase in people seeking assistance.

"Demand is going up across the board," said Cynthia Larcom, director of the Homeless Services Coalition in Kansas City.

She said there are always examples of people seeking more shelter space than what's available, but the region has seen a jump in requests, especially for family shelter in the past six months. "They are full. They are at capacity. They are turning people away," Larcom said.

When the St. Patrick Center in St. Louis opened a new facility downtown two years ago, they saw more homeless or at-risk people taking advantage of their programs, everything from independent living skills training to computer classes.

They chalked it up to a souring economy, combined with a new location and more services available under one roof.

But lately they've seen the numbers of those in need continue to creep up. At the current location, the center used to provide a free hot lunch to an average of 170 people a day; now that number is closer to 200.

In the last fiscal year, their substance abuse treatment program worked with 807 people.

This budgetary year, while they have additional funding for the program, that number is closer to 1025, explained Charlie Willingham, program vice president.

Studying for GED

Centreis Brown, 24, has been homeless in the past, but he's currently living with his mother and sister in suburban Pine Lawn as he studies for his GED at the St. Patrick Center. He says he's been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is on probation, but he's trying to earn his high school equivalency degree so he can go on to college. He said the center's assistance has made a real difference.

"I'm almost ready to take the test," he said.

People seeking assistance in urban areas, like Brown, have increased.

The Missouri Association for Social Welfare released its 2001 census earlier this year. That group found an estimated 45,700 people were homeless throughout Missouri last year, compared to 32,500 in 1998.

Not everyone has seen increased demand, however. Need has remained fairly constant at the 50-bed Souls Harbor shelter in southwestern Joplin, said director Joan Lewis, and the shelter has been able to assist those needing a place to stay.

Throughout the state, advocates said they are still focused on programs that provide people with programs they need to be self-sufficient and find a permanent, secure housing situation.

But many sense a difficult holiday season for people in need.

The Salvation Army division serving most of Missouri and southern Illinois expects a tough winter for many people in need. One early indication? "Our Christmas applications are up 18 percent over last year," said Major Robert Thomson.

He called that level of demand for food vouchers and holiday gifts nothing short of "extraordinary."

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