COLUMBIA — It's a quarter to five at the Salvation Army Harbor House, and the cafeteria is already filling up for dinner. Green cots are stacked in the lobby, waiting for the flood of people who will be seeking a warm bed in Columbia for the night.
Harbor House was forced to turn away nearly 700 requests for shelter in the last three months, said director Jim Chapman. As jobs disappear and the temperature continues to drop in mid-Missouri, Harbor House is at capacity.
Staff members say the people coming through the doors aren't necessarily the ones you might expect.
"It's not limited to what you think of as 'the poor,'" Chapman said. "That's the old picture." He estimates that at least half the residents have some kind of labor skill.
"We've got brick layers, mechanics, truck drivers," he said. Some residents never made it past the third grade but others are college educated, he said, and one has a doctorate degree.
Flo Osborn, a case manager at the Salvation Army’s headquarters, said half the people she sees every day are new faces. They work in industries such as health care, retail, manufacturing and service. She attributes the high rate of “first timers” to job loss in the community.
One resident sits on the curb outside Harbor House, reading "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" as he waits for a bus. He is originally from Missouri but has spent time all over the country. After losing his manufacturing job in Michigan, he made his way south through Indiana and Kentucky, looking for work. He landed in Columbia this summer and has been at Harbor House ever since.
Inside Harbor House, a young woman talks on the phone in the hallway, holding a baby on her hip. A toddler runs across the lobby, two huge Incredible Hulk foam gloves on his hands.
Staff member Kate Highland said a number of children have been living at Harbor House, ranging from tiny babies to teenagers.
Nocomus Peal, a Columbia resident who moved in a month ago, is the mother of two of Harbor House's teens. Peal’s children are 14 and 15.
A proud parent, Peal can’t help bragging about her children. “They do so well in school,” she said. She is adamant about seeing them get an education. “They’re going to graduate, and they’re going to college,” she said.
Peal lived in Harbor House briefly in 2004 before moving into a house. After she had a stroke and fell on hard times, she landed back at Harbor House.
“When I came here from the hospital, I had one bag of clothes. That was it,” she said.
Peal, who is unable to work because of her health, is waiting to see if she qualifies for Social Security disability benefits. “They always deny you the first time,” she said.
Harbor House requires residents who are physically able to work to apply to four jobs a week. Those unable to work spend 20 hours a week volunteering in the community or at the Salvation Army thrift store. Peal pitches in at Harbor House by serving meals, which she says she enjoys.
Salvation Army Regional Director K. Kendall Matthews said the center is not focused on giving handouts to the people it serves. “They’re not just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs,” he said.
Matthews says he prefers to hire bell ringers instead of using volunteers because it gives someone a job. Providing someone a paycheck, even for ringing the Salvation Army bell, strengthens the economy and offers re-entry into the work world, he said.
Chapman also stressed that Harbor House offers more than shelter. In addition to providing emergency housing for up to 30 days and transitional housing for as long as two years, residents receive skill training and assistance finding jobs. There is also a recovery program for drug and alcohol addiction.
“My task is to help them get out of here and be self-sufficient,” Chapman said.