Homelessness in Sedalia and Pettis County is a concern to many in the community, but area nonprofit agencies have no easy answers when it comes to providing an emergency shelter.
Many know firsthand that if a homeless person comes to their agency they will have to find alternatives for shelter. Heartland Recovery Resource Center found this true Jan. 19 when members of their staff spoke with a homeless woman for two hours at their offices.
The previous evening, the woman was observed by several people in downtown Sedalia kneeling in the snow in 20-degree temperatures with only a bottle of water and a backpack. She was drawing feverishly in the snow for more than an hour.
Johnnie Williams, of Heartland, saw the woman outside their offices the next day and asked her to come in out of the cold.
“When we waved her over, she was reluctant,” he said. “She didn’t want to be here, she didn’t want any help … but it was cold and my instincts said, ‘do you want to come in and warm up?’”
The woman told him her gloves were wet and asked if he could dry them for her.
Clauida Kays, Heartland director, said when the woman came to their offices she had open wounds on her face. The woman told the staff she had Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), an antibiotic resistant staph infection.
Heartland did a statewide search and couldn’t find a place for the woman to stay. Abigail Imperial, with the Heartland support team, said often the homeless population “fall through the cracks because they don’t fit the stipulations” of an agency due to specific criteria. One agency may take only those who have been physically abused while others will not take someone with an addiction-related problem. Kays added that the woman said the night before someone had paid for her to stay at a motel.
Imperial said she believed the woman, who was in her late 20s to early 30s, had meth-induced psychosis or schizophrenia. The staff said she had a notebook full of “deep scribbling” with words written over other words.
“We observed her talking to herself outside,” Imperial added. “She was attempting to tape a cigarette together to smoke.”
Fearing that she could die because of the infection, Heartland staff called an ambulance to take the woman to the hospital. Before the ambulance arrived the woman left Heartland, but not before writing them a note thanking them, but saying she didn’t want help.
Help is often rejected by the homeless for various reasons.
“It’s a comfort zone, once you get out there and you’re homeless, and for whatever reason you’ve burned bridges, then you get to the point where you don’t want anybody’s help,” Williams said. “Then you start telling yourself ‘hey I can do this.’ That’s where that attitude comes from.”
“At least we know we planted a seed,” Kays said. “She knows she can come back and have a cup of coffee.”
Kays said Heartland covers a broad area. They not only help those with substance abuse, but those who are homeless, those who need employment, and those who want to obtain their GED.
She added that there is no place in Sedalia to take the homeless. The last time they helped a homeless woman they had to take her to a Salvation Army shelter in Jefferson City. That particular woman had been living in an abandoned building in the area.
Roxanna Parker, director of housing at Pettis County Community Partnership, told the Democrat last week that often homeless people in the area will take shelter under bridges, in storage units, in railroad cars, 24-hour gas stations and even at Walmart.
She added that there was progress last year in organizing a emergency shelter for the homeless, but the plan fell through in September.
She told the Democrat on Thursday that at 11 a.m. today the PCCP will meet with PROP (Putting Roofs Over People) to begin the process all over again.
“We will start working on the emergency shelter,” she said. “We have several projects in the works and the emergency shelter is one of those.”
Parker added that PCCP was aware of the homeless woman who visited Heartland on Jan. 19.
“She has received help,” Parker said. “We were working with a couple other people and she did receive help, actually she ended up going to a hospital.”
Due to HIPPA laws, Parker added that they have not heard about the woman’s condition.
“Most of the time we don’t find out again until they are being released from the hospital,” she added. “If they don’t have somewhere to go, the hospital will contact us. That’s when we get involved again.”
Questions have been asked about why money can be raised for other projects in Sedalia but not for a homeless shelter. Parker and PCCP Executive Director Cheri Heeren both agreed that many issues are at play and that there is no simple answer.
Often family members who have had to deal with a loved one’s addiction and the repeated cycle of substance abuse wash their hands of the situation and don’t want to be involved in the cycle.
“Homelessness is not glamorous,” Parker noted. “You can’t put a great big sign up and make it look beautiful. There’s a lot of things that contribute to homelessness — mental illness, addictions, abuse. There are a lot of ugly social issues that go along with it. It’s not a fun project to tackle.”
Parker said she believes they have a lot of community support, but added that those in the community need to realize building an emergency shelter takes a large amount of background work.
“You can’t just buy a building and open the doors and say ‘come on in,’” she noted.
“There are so many legal aspects,” Heeren added.
“We have done a lot of the background work, the footwork has been completed,” Parker added. “So, I think we are ready to move forward. Truthfully, a lot of times what happens when you get one of these projects going, when the weather gets nice it fizzles out because people forget it’s an issue.”
Once winter sets in people become concerned again about the problem.
Heeren noted also that once the shelter is built there will be an “ongoing cost.”
“It’s not just getting the money to get a facility, you have to staff it, you have utilities and liability insurance,” she said. “You have to have funds or some way to keep it going.”
Parker added that although PCCP does much toward helping others, their strong suit isn’t running a shelter, and the same is true for other agencies. When considering building an emergency shelter, those involved need to find a a suitable long-term manager for the facility.
“Part of it is bringing all of these different groups and these interested people together and getting all the background work done,” Parker said. “Getting all of this lined out and getting a 501(c)(3), getting that nonprofit status from the IRS … so that we can start applying for grants and funding.”
She added that they can “facilitate” the project, but at present no one has stepped forward who wants run the shelter.
Several agencies will come together Wednesday for the annual homeless count in Sedalia. The count will run from midnight Tuesday to midnight Wednesday. The event is sponsored by the Missouri Governor’s Committee to End Homelessness.
Wednesday evening, agencies and individuals will meet at 6 p.m., two doors down from PCCP in the State Fair Shopping Center at 1400 S. Limit Ave. Suite 28A. They will have a training session and dinner; afterward they will go out for about three hours to count the local homeless population.
Parker invites anyone who wishes to help to contact PCCP at 827-0560.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.