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Groups aim to raise awareness of Missouri's homeless

November 14, 2005
By: Leslie Yingling
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - More than 5,000 shoes lined the state Capitol steps in neat rows yesterday, one pair for every 10 Missourians who experience homelessness.

The display included athletic shoes, sandals, loafers and dress shoes, in all sizes, a variety to symbolize Missouri's diverse and growing homeless population of 26,000 children and adults.

"Next year, we hope to have fewer shoes," said Dianna Moore, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.

The Governor's Committee to End Homelessness hosted the event "Walking with People...Who Have No Homes" on the first day of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week in an effort to educate people about homelessness in Missouri.

Most people don't recognize homelessness in Missouri, said Theresa Taylor, the founder of a faith-based transitional living facility in Cape Girardeau for homeless women with drug addictionsu. Taylor, who was once homeless, was joined at the homeless awareness event by about 10 other formerly homeless women who work with her at Vision House.

"When you say homeless, most people think of big cities with a wino on a park bench, an old woman pushing a cart, or people gathered around a burning barrel," Taylor said, "but it's a rural problem, too."

Taylor also hopes to help people realize that homelessness is usually not a choice.

"If you walk around in the cold for three days, you'll know it's not a life decision," she said.

Karia Basta, housing director of the Department of Mental Health, said many common assumptions about the causes of homelessness are wrong.

"The stereotype is a person who is unemployed, and has a mental health or drinking problem, but it's real simple: poverty is the cause of homelessness," she said.

Liz Hagar-Mace, chair of the Committee to End Homelessness, said the group developed a ten-year plan to eradicate chronic homelessness from Missouri. But some state policies, such as the Medicaid cuts implemented earlier this year, have a devastating effect on the homeless and poor, she said.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, also said the state has taken a step back in terms of combating homelessness because of its cuts to Medicaid and other safety net programs.

"I hope we start to truly try and address the issues of poverty and try to get support systems out to people to help them be everything that they can be, and that's a focus that I hope the governor's commission on homelessness will take," he said.

Homelessness in Missouri effects more children than adults, Hagar-Mace said. The average homeless person in Missouri is nine years old, she said.

One hundred homeless students attended Columbia Public Schools during the 2003-2004 school year, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In July, Columbia's Office of Community Services counted about 1,300 individuals and families experiencing homelessness or living in shelters, transitional or permanent-supportive housing.

But Phil Steinhaus, manager of the office, said it is very difficult to count the population of unsheltered homeless because it is so transient.

"It's hard to track them, but we do have people living in alleys downtown, and in camps near our interstate bridges," he said."We are kind of a regional destination for the homeless because Columbia is a generous and giving community."

"I think people come to Columbia because they're seeking opportunities, not because it's a great place to be homeless," Steinhaus said.