HANNIBAL, Mo. – An official homeless count is scheduled for Jan. 26 when the statewide one-time count is taken.
Point-in-time counting is an annual requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted by the Missouri Balance of State Continuums of Care.
The group partners with local agencies to count people experiencing homelessness on a single January night.
Brent Engel, public information manager for the North East Community Action Corp., said the project is an important tool to help the state “monitor homeless population trends.”
“It also helps direct funding to services that can help those in need,” he said.
The count is done by volunteers who go into the community and try to find homeless people.
Engel said that in Hannibal, the Loaves and Fishes program and the women’s shelter are a good source. He also said they were searching the downtown streets and in particular the amphitheater where they saw evidence of homelessness.
“There are remains of a fire, or boxes and stuff like that; people slept cooking and sleeping there,” he said.
Engel said it’s harder to find homeless people in rural counties, like Ralls and Monroe. By turning to local churches, food pantries, senior centers and other local organizations, they can sometimes find people in need of food.
“They might not say they’re homeless, but they might look like they need a place to go,” he said.
Because last year’s count was canceled due to COVID, Missouri’s most recent homelessness numbers are from 2020, but even without those numbers, Engel said he knows there is an increase in northeastern Missouri.
He cited inflation hitting a record high of 7% as a major factor in the increase. The choice between putting food on the table or paying rent is a tough but very real choice that many have to make.
He talked about a woman who recently sought help from NECAC after a divorce. While raising her children and working full time, she only had $40 left at the end of the week.
“It’s not going to buy a lot of food or fill your gas tank,” he said.
Situations like this often lead to homelessness, but it’s not always as visible as Engel said.
NECAC sees unsheltered homeless people on the streets, but it tends to see more homeless people considered to be sheltered; they are known as “couch surfers”.
Job loss and changes in family structure, such as divorce, are two of the main factors that cause the loss of permanent housing.
It causes people, often families, to jump from night to night with friends and family.
Engel met a homeless woman in shelter a few weeks ago who had three children and said the loss of her permanent home was having a harsh effect on the children.
“It hurts them both mentally and physically. They don’t do as well in school, which leads to other problems,” he said. “It’s kind of a chain reaction when someone becomes homeless; everything around them changes and becomes more difficult.
Engel said there is a silver lining. As they see the needs growing, they also see an increase in the number of those asking for help – and that hasn’t always been the case.
“We live in rural areas and we’re not always the type to ask for help, so it’s hard for people to reach out,” he said. “But when you get to the point where you’ve got a quarter tank of gas and you haven’t eaten in 24 hours, that’s when reality hits and you realize you’re going to have to reach out because things will only get worse.”
Not only do they offer rental and housing assistance, but Engel said they “work with other agencies to help alleviate the conditions that cause poverty but also homelessness.”
With this in mind, NECAC offers several programs designed to help people make permanent changes in their lives. SkillUP is for people who receive food stamps and Expanding Your Employability (EYE) is for people who don’t receive food stamps.
“These programs give them job skills and budgeting lessons to help them get back on their feet,” he said.
Engel wants people to know that there is help for everyone, no matter their situation.
“Don’t think you have to go it alone. Contact us and we will do everything we can to prevent you from becoming homeless,” he said.