Homeless in St. Charles: the hidden epidemic in US suburbs

1,089. That’s the number of homeless people Missouri’s St. Charles, Warren, and Lincoln counties. A 2010 mini-documentary called “The Hidden Homeless reports that  this year’s 200% increase in rural homelessness is an epidemic few are aware of.  Lack of public awareness is just one of the problems facing advocates for the displaced, while the hidden homeless in area suburbs reflect a nationwide trend towards increased need.

The Salvation Army, one of the most well-known national charity organizations, has witnessed the increased need across the country. Figures released this year show that the organization spent $3.12 billion dollars in 2009 helping people with food, emergency shelter, utilities, and other needs. That amount is up from $3.05 billion in 2008 and $2.88 billion in 2007.

Homelessness is typically viewed as an urban problem, so cities receive more financial aid to help combat it. Because urban homelessness tends to be more visual, and shelters are commonplace, it is easier to get a head count in cities. Volunteers in rural and suburban areas across the country, including in St. Charles County, conduct their own searches in an effort to increase public awareness and gain both community and political support.  One day of every year, organization volunteers nationwide participate in the Homeless Count by taking to the streets, walking rural areas, and visiting small local shelters.

In  “The Hidden Homeless: Uncovering an Epidemic,” Wentzville Mayor Paul Lambi explains, “Homelessness is very, very difficult to observe. It’s really not observable because if you are homeless, you try to remain unobserved. You want to fade into the woodwork, blend into the crowd.”

The economic boom and subsequent recession put thousands of people out of work. “So you have families without health care benefits. Somebody gets sick, it can wipe them out financially and they can be homeless in a matter of weeks,” adds Lambi.

The average age of a homeless person in Missouri is seven, and the Missouri Department of Education estimates that the number of school-aged children who are homeless is growing. There are a few small shelters in St. Charles County for specific demographics. Pregnant women, families, and children can often find temporary and/or emergency shelter, but single men fall through the cracks.

Who’s helping

Paul Kruse, founder of Missouri’s First Step Back Home, wants to help single homeless men find work and get on their feet, so he provides them with pre-paid cell phones and short motel stays. If they have a vehicle, he also provides money for gas, so they can apply for work and get to job interviews. Kruse also gets creative: He provides bicycles for people without vehicles, so they have some means of transportation.

Both Youth in Need and the Crisis Nursery help children and teens with shelter, nutrition, education, and other personal needs. Both programs focus on prevention, with hotlines and counseling available to those who need it. Neither of the groups takes in families, however, and they are typically the last resort for at-risk kids and/or families facing crisis.

Operation Food Search [OFS]collects food and personal items for area needy. More than 2 million pounds of goods go to shelters, soup kitchens, and other charity groups across Missouri each month. In order to meet the growing need, OFS has a list of events that include art sales and something called Bag Hunger. Bag Hunger is a nearly 2-month long event in which Whole Foods Markets in St. Louis sell inexpensive gift tags to shoppers; proceeds are used to purchase food that OFS distributes. Forty to 80 member agencies help put OFS food into the hands of Missouri’s poor and homeless.

St. Joachim and Ann Care Services is another advocate for low-income and homeless individuals in the St. Charles region. The Care Service helps at-need people with food, shelter, school supplies, employment, and financial assistance with utilities and medical expenses. Every the organization sponsors an Adopt-a-Family program for Christmas. In 2010, the organization expect to serves more than 700 families.

St. Joachim and Anne volunteers work with Vision, a group of educators, leaders, activists, and other professionals whose objective is to raise public awareness about local issues. According to The Vision Class of 2010, factors that contribute to the growing suburban homeless population include lack of public awareness, transitional housing, and public transportation.

“Right now in St. Charles County, the primary barrier to services is funding,” says Dottie Kastigar of Community Council of St. Charles, a clearinghouse for community networking and activism. “State and federal funding formulas are based on area media income. They don’t reflect the growing bottom portion of the community that has a need for services. Kastigar also notes that funding is much lower than in comparable areas in St. Louis, which receives $56 million in funding to combat homelessness. The tri-county area receives about $1.5 million.

In 2009, the number of homeless in the tri-county area was 830. The St. Louis census put the number of city homeless [in the same year] at 1,350. According to these numbers, the ratio of urban homeless to suburban homeless is less than 2:1, yet St. Louis receives more than thirty-seven times the funding. For further perspective, consider that the population of St. Louis County in 2009 was about 992,000 while the combined population of St. Charles, Lincoln, and Warren counties was around 440,000.

The situation is eerily similar elsewhere in the country. In order to receive HUD grants, a homeless count is a necessary part of the application process. However, HUD does not define homelessness as individuals couch-hopping or staying in motels, which is commonplace in suburban areas and skews the numbers.

What you can do

Advocacy groups urge the community to contact local and state officials about the problem. Charity organizations can only do so much, especially when they rely on the generosity of communities feeling the pinch of the recession. Legislative action is vital in order to address the hidden epidemic of suburban homelessness. The first step is public awareness.

For a listing of shelters, resources, and charity organizations in your area, visit the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website and click “State Info” on the top navigation bar. In Missouri, you can click here.