As the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department works to improve the issue of homelessness in the local parks, several services are providing resources to the homeless community.
During Tuesday's Jefferson City Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, Parks Director Todd Spalding said homeless camps have cropped up in city parks, particularly along Wears Creek in Washington Park. The department also received reports from Riverside and North Jefferson parks.
Over the last two months, the Parks Department received at least one report per week of homeless individuals staying in the parks, Spalding said.
While this is an increase in reports, it's most likely due to the department clearing out invasive plants in the parks and revealing areas that had been concealed, he explained. Homeless individuals camped in the hidden areas, so when park officials removed the invasive plants, they discovered more homeless camps.
Commission President Brad Bates said he attended a baseball game at one park this year and noticed a homeless person sleeping in a small shelter near the concession stands and baseball field.
A homeless man's body was found last August in Wears Creek in Washington Park after flash flooding.
"No one wants to see someone that's down on their luck and struggling and has to battle the elements to survive," Bates said. "Having to live in tall grass and weeds of a local park definitely isn't a good situation for them."
While most homeless people in the parks do not cause issues, Spalding said it happens sometimes.
When the Parks Department discovers homeless individuals, Spalding said they try talking to them first. If they do not leave, then the Parks Department calls the Jefferson City Police Department.
JCPD Capt. Doug Shoemaker said police response to calls involving homeless people varies. While the officers have to enforce the law, they also want to help the individuals.
Shoemaker said there has to be a legal violation for the police to take action. For example, if homeless people are on private property and are told by the property owner not to return to the area, the police department can make note of it. If the individuals return, then police can cite them for trespassing.
While an arrest is possible, it is rare and used as a last resort, he said. The main goal is helping homeless people find services or shelters.
Homelessness in the community
There are two types of homelessness: sheltered and unsheltered. Sheltered homelessness is when a person is staying in a homeless shelter or is "doubled up" — jumping between homes because they do not have one of their own.
Unsheltered homelessness, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is lacking a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence" and residing in a place not meant for human living — like cars, abandoned buildings and parks.
There are 69 homeless people in Cole County, according to the 2016 Missouri Balance of State Sheltered and Unsheltered Point-In-Time Count of Homelessness report, which shows reports for 101 counties and does not include the St. Louis, Kansas City or Springfield areas.
Deon Tucker, director of the Salvation Army shelter in Jefferson City, said he thought this number was extremely low.
"That's not even close," he said. "I don't know if everyone else is seeing this, but I'm seeing this. The homeless population is going through the roof. Actual homeless people in Jeff City, you're looking at 1,500-2,000. You can go to a single encampment and find 69 of them down there. You can go to an abandoned building and see 30 of them walk out."
The report splits the state into 10 regions, with Cole and 15 other counties in Region 5, where there were 441 homeless people reported.
The total point-in-time count for the state is 1,430 homeless people, according to the report.
Sheltered homelessness is almost four times more common than unsheltered homelessness in Region 5, with the largest population of homeless people being at least 25 years old, the report states. The top two reported reasons for unsheltered homelessness in Region 5 are inability to pay rent and unemployment.
Homelessness can be difficult to see, though. While the most visible individuals are the chronically homeless — those who can't stay in a shelter due to criminal records or who can't psychologically handle the community-living environment — several people live in tents out of sight or are doubled-up, Common Ground Community Building Director Kristen Hilty said.
There are 166 people in Region 5 who are doubled-up, according to the point-in-time count.
"Those are families who may not consider themselves homeless, but they really don't have a home to call their own," Hilty said. "They're living with a family, another family member, a friend. I've know people who are living with people they don't really know because it's just someone they met on the street and it's shelter, so they're doubled-up with them."
Common Ground started five years ago and is a social service program that provides resources and financial support to homeless individuals. One resource is the rapid housing program, which works to find permanent housing for homeless individuals and provide skills they need to find jobs, Hilty said. The program pays for the individuals' rents and gradually weans them off the program until they can pay rent themselves.
"Providing that long-term support for people in transition, people who were experiencing homelessness, was key," Hilty said. "We didn't think it was enough to just kind of help with a couple of nights at a hotel or pay off past-due rent. We felt like they needed that long-term support to help them get back on their feet."
Common Ground is part of the Jefferson City Homelessness Task Force, comprised of churches, social work agencies and volunteers. The task force — started in fall 2014 — looks at ways the city can raise awareness, education, resources and shelter options.
The best known resource born from the task force is Project Homeless Connect, a one-day service hosted by several churches and social work organizations. The event was created three years ago and provides several services such as free dental and vision care, housing and job resources, haircuts and bus passes. The next Project Homeless Connect event — under its new name, Project Home Connect — will be in October.
The Salvation Army offers a 40-bed shelter that provides services and helps homeless people try to meet their goals. The Salvation Army — which allows people to stay up to a year — not only provides food, laundry services and showers, but also brings in companies and individuals to provide services like legal advice and job application assistance.
The Salvation Army also helps individuals find housing by partnering with landlords in the community to negotiate reduced rent, with the Salvation Army paying the remainder.
There are requirements to stay at the Salvation Army, though. An individual has to meet HUD's criteria for homelessness and have a third party confirm he or she is homeless. The person cannot have any violent felonies or active warrants and cannot use drugs while staying in the facility, among other requirements.
Even with 40 beds, the Salvation Army has to turn away homeless people daily. When this happens, Tucker said he tries to provide numbers to other services.
"I think what probably gets me the most is having a mom with three or four kids call saying they need a place, and we have to say, 'I don't have it. It's full,'" Tucker said. "It's a difficult part, and it happens every day."
There are also resources like the United Way of Central Missouri and the HALO Foundation, which provides shelter for homeless teenage girls and currently is working on providing shelter to teenage boys.
Jefferson City works indirectly with these organizations, Neighborhood Services Coordinator Jayme Abbott said. The city sets aside 15 percent, or about $25,000, of the community development block grant — provided by HUD — toward public services and nonprofit programs, some of which help homeless individuals. Some of these funds went toward Project Homeless Connect and funding bus passes that nonprofit organizations purchase for the homeless.
Even with the variety of resources Jefferson City offers, room for improvement remains.
As the Parks Department clears invasive plants, Spalding and Bates said, they want to guide homeless individuals to shelters or other services but also raise awareness and assistance in the community.
"We can't just turn a blind eye to a situation that we have," Bates said. "It would be nice if the situation didn't exist, but the fact is Jefferson City does have a homeless population. To not try to rectify it or provide some type of help or counseling that can help these folks get back on their feet probably isn't a good thing to do. We need to assist if we can."
Tucker said he would like to see a shelter that focuses more on families and providing services to children.
"When we're talking about children; that frightens me, because not only does that subject them to the environment, to that type of living, but it subjects them to the negativity of the other populations out there," he said.
Another idea is to provide more transportation services to homeless people. Most homeless people do not have transportation or a way to afford public transportation, so Tucker said he would like either the Salvation Army or another organization to provide transportation. This could mean purchasing a vehicle and driving individuals to desired locations.
Hilty said she would like to see a housing-first model implemented in Jefferson City. In a housing-first model, homeless individuals could be housed, "no questions asked," she said. This means anyone who meets the homelessness criteria, regardless of their criminal record or past background, would be allowed to stay there.
The housing-first model would be for individuals who are ineligible to stay at the Salvation Army or those who cannot psychologically handle being in a community shelter. These people are the most visible on the street, and Hilty said the housing-first model could be an option for them.
"There is not really any housing for them," she said. "Unless we put ourselves out there, we're not giving these people a chance. It's a lot safer for those individuals and the community if they are in a shelter like that because the alternative is for them to be on the street in locations where we don't know where they are, so the safest way would be to house them in a shelter. Until we can provide that housing where we can say, 'Here, you are safe, you are secure,' we will continue to see homelessness in our community."
Another improvement would be offering more affordable housing in Jefferson City. Hilty said it can be difficult for people to find affordable housing in Jefferson City, and the wait list for some of those properties is long.
The Jefferson City Housing Authority provides affordable housing and the housing choice voucher program — most commonly known as Section 8 — which is when a voucher is provided to the landlord to reduce rent. There is about a 4-year wait for the voucher program, Housing Authority Executive Director Cynthia Quetsch said last month.
While the agencies do provide services, Tucker said community support and discussion can also be key to combating homelessness.
Even though there are improvements that could be made, Hilty said Jefferson City has come a long way in helping the homeless community.
"I feel like a lot has happened in the last few years," she said. "The momentum has been there and is building. We still have a few problems we have to address, but we're starting to fill in a lot of those gaps I saw three or four years ago.