A look at local efforts that help battle homelessness — and what more can be done.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, homelessness throughout the country has declined 12% since 2007 but is up 2.7% since 2018, and recent estimates conclude that 567,715 people were homeless during a single night last year alone. More than one-third of that population is unsheltered, living on the streets or other locations not meant for human habitation, though Missouri as a whole has seen a decrease in unsheltered populations. While many of those individuals are located in larger metro areas, like Kansas City, St. Louis, and Springfield, others are living throughout the greater state, including Jefferson City.

Ronnie Toates, 45, happens to be one of them. Last year, following the death of his grandfather, the Blackwater native relapsed after a decade of being clean. He says he started getting high and surrounded himself with the “wrong people.” On Sept. 1, 2019, Toates was arrested and served some months in the county jail. After his release and a night sleeping under a cedar tree in Apache Flats, he found a space to stay at The Salvation Army Center of Hope Family Shelter on Jefferson Street.

In the days and weeks that followed, Toates received not just a place to rest, but, as he says, “a welcoming one.” He now spends time working in the center’s kitchen and doing other tasks to support their workload. He now has a job at DeLong’s Inc., an updated pair of eyeglasses, a church family, a checking account, new relationships, and a refreshed outlook on life.

“For the longest time, I didn’t like myself, and this place here has brought the best out in me,” Toates said of the Salvation Army. “It’s taught me how to love myself again.”

Counting Homelessness

The figures for homelessness are not flawless, particularly in light of recent challenges posed by COVID-19, but they are derived from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s point-in-time count. During one night in January, local volunteers across the country fan out, collecting shelter numbers and visiting outdoor areas where people who are homeless tend to congregate. Local tallies are then shared with HUD to help monitor trends in the homeless population and increase public awareness of homelessness.

The last Cole County count was led by the Salvation Army in 2019 with the support of other volunteer individuals and groups, including Common Ground and Compass Health Network. At that time, 64 Cole County residents were considered homeless. Of those, 56 were sheltered while eight were not. Additionally, 17 of those reported individuals said they have children in their household.

One organization helping to support homeless youth, in particular, is HALO Worldwide.

“HALO addresses the issue of youth homelessness by meeting the youth where they are at when they come to us for services,” says HALO Program Director Carly Schultze. “These youths have experienced varying levels of trauma, and we have to treat each youth and their experiences individually and figure out what will work best. . . . It is our job to help them identify the areas in which they need support and provide them a strong foundation with the tools and life skills they need to learn how to live independently in a safe environment and truly break that cycle of homelessness.”

Lending a Hand

In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted shelter spaces by reducing the number of available beds allowed there.

Brian Vogeler, the Center of Hope coordinator, notes that when individuals are turned away because of space issues, staff members try to brainstorm alternative solutions and provide as many additional resources as possible. That might mean directing clients to sister shelters in the area or arranging for a train ticket to a different town where family members can offer support and a place to stay.

Within the past few years, events like Project Homeless Connect have also proven to be a successful resource for people who are homeless or near homeless. During the event, Jefferson City-based agencies, churches, businesses, and volunteers band together to “help persons who are homeless or near-homeless overcome as many barriers to permanent housing as possible.” The day includes everything from showers to medical screenings and connections with social service groups.

For individuals hoping to help tackle homelessness in Cole County, Vogeler suggests understanding what area programs and tools are available and how to direct those in need to them.

“Always know your local resources,” Vogeler says.

Beyond that, he advises that you put yourself in other people’s shoes.

“There are multiple reasons why people are homeless,” Vogeler says. “A lot [of individuals] are good people. They’re hardworking. They’ve just fallen on hard times.”

“When you see a homeless person, don’t look down on them. Everybody has a story,” Toates adds.