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Putting a face on Callaway's homeless

“We’re people too.”

That is the message Callaway County’s homeless population wants to share with their more fortunate neighbors. They want to be acknowledged as being people who are just as valuable as everyone else.

“The worst part of being homeless is being shunned,” said H. M., a homeless Fulton man who asked to remain anonymous so as not to embarrass family in the area. “People will drive by (Wiley House, an overnight shelter for single individuals run by Our House: Caring for Callaway’s Homeless) while we’re sitting on the front porch and point their fingers at you. When they see you come out of the house they’ll walk across the street so they don’t have to walk next to you.

“I guess they think it’s catching.”

Our House Director Linda Clemens shared a similar perspective from another client.

“I think the most telling thing I’ve ever heard is we had one woman who said to me, ‘You know what the worst thing about being homeless is, Linda? People don’t see me,’” Clemens recalled. “(She said) ‘People I know, people I go to church with, work with, had no idea that I’ve been living out of my car for a year, showering at the truck stop three times a week.

“‘When they found out, they wouldn’t even look at me, wouldn’t talk to me ... people don’t know what to say,’” Clemens finished relating. “That hurt her more than anything.”

According to statistics from the Our House section of the Callaway County United Way Web site, approximately 200 people are homeless on any given night in Callaway County, and as many as 1/3 of them are under 18 years of age. Most homeless in Callaway County sleep from couch to couch, in parked cars, vacant buildings, park restrooms or tents.

“I’ve slept on the ground an awful lot, I’ve slept under bridges, I’ve ate out of garbage cans,” H. M. said. “Your health usually goes down pretty fast.”

A former plumber by trade, he said he first became homeless in 2006 after losing his job.

“I ran out of money and ended up living in my van for a while,” H. M. said. “I couldn’t find a job here, so I went down to the lake. I found work there for a year, year and a half, but I got laid off again and I’ve been in and out of shelters since.”

He said he has traveled many places in search of work — including spending time in Phoenix and in Spokane, Wash. — but has been unable to secure long-term employment.

“Usually when they find out you’re at a homeless shelter, they don’t want anything to do with you — it’s like you’re a leper or something,” H. M. said of trying to find work while homeless, adding that at 56 his age plays a role as well. “There have been a couple of jobs here I’ve taken in applications for, but when you don’t have tools or transportation, it’s hard to get a job.”

He said it is not just middle-aged or older people like himself having problems, “it’s young people too.”

“You see whole families. When I was in Spokane, we all lived under a bridge and there were mothers and fathers with kids not going to school because they couldn’t get in without an address or clothes or food,” H. M. said. “We have one gentleman who had been here recently who was in the service for four years and hadn’t been back long, but had been without work.”

Having come back to Fulton because of his connections here, H. M. noted “I have family in town, but they can’t help me; a day or two at a time is fine, but it puts too much hardship on them.”

He said it was his sister who finally told him about Our House — which also includes housing for families at Haven House — which he said has made a big difference.

Wiley House — the overnight shelter for single individuals, which has check-in from 6-8 every night and check-out by 9 every morning — has space for up to nine men downstairs and eight women upstairs. A background check is required, resulting in a pass that is valid for 30 days. No one can stay more than 45 out of every 90 days. Anyone on a sex offender list, with a violent criminal history, who has outstanding warrants or is under the influence of alcohol or drugs is denied entry.

“I’m grateful for this place. I’ve got a place to sleep, there are nice bathrooms to take a shower, a bed with clean linens every night,” H. M. said. “The (monitors) that stay here at night are terrific — last night one of them bought pizza and sodas for everybody; he didn’t have to do that.”

He said having Wiley House to go to at night is a lifesaver, but what to do between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. is more difficult.

“When it’s warm out it’s not so bad; I always have a book to read and I can walk around, go to the park and sit,” he said. “If it’s cool I can go to the library — they are very generous to us. We usually go on the computers looking for jobs or we sit and read.”

On Sundays however, when the library is closed, there is no place to go to get warm — or even go to the bathroom after being told at gas stations that restrooms are for paying customers only. Finding something to eat is a challenge every day.

“I don’t have any money I could eat on. Monday through Thursday they have the soup kitchen down at the community center,” H. M. said, noting there are some non-perishable items at Wiley House, although there is only a microwave and limited storage available. “If it wasn’t for the soup kitchen, we wouldn’t have anything to eat.”

H. M., who noted “I’ve thought about going out and ending it all,” said he wishes people would look beyond the stereotypes they see portrayed on the small and large screen.

“They’re thinking of the guys they see in the movies — the ones in the big city alleys on drugs or the wino — but that’s not all homeless people,” H. M. said. “We’re normal people and 90 percent of homeless people want jobs. We’d like people to understand that we’re just down on our luck right now.

“We’re not asking for handouts, we’re not begging for anything, we’d just like a chance to get back on our feet. If we find a job, we’ll work — we’re not asking for favors.”

Clemens said Our House has seen an increase in demand for services recently, but “we have not had to turn people away because of space.”

She said Our House, especially Wiley House, can always use donations of paper goods, cleaning products, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and non-perishable food items such as peanut butter and bread, or foods that can be prepared in a microwave.

For more information on Our House, or to make a donation, contact (573) 642-6766 or (573) 642-6065.

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