KANSAS CITY — An annual survey will likely find more homeless people living in Missouri this year than last, according to those who work to help the homeless.
Volunteers and advocates coordinated a census of the homeless Wednesday as part of an annual, federally mandated count used to determine how federal, state and local resources can best be allocated.
Final numbers are not expected until March, but Anne Lesser, interim executive director of the Homeless Services Coalition in Kansas City, has no doubt the numbers will be higher than the 1,600 homeless found in the city last year.
She attributed that partly to having city police involved in the count for the first time but pointed mostly to the economy.
"Because some of our wonderful men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan fall into trouble, foreclosures, people losing jobs — all those things are impacting homelessness," Lesser said.
About 150 volunteers fanned out across Kansas City to ask the homeless how they ended up on the streets and what services they need.
Kenneth Robinson, 46, and his companion, Lytonya Al-Shams, who wouldn't give her age, were eager to tell how they came to be panhandling near downtown Kansas City on a day when bitter winds made it feel much colder than the mid-30 temperatures.
Robinson said he has been on the street for two months after being laid off from a Kansas City, Kan., oil wholesaler. He had once been homeless for seven years but put his life back together before this latest setback.
Al-Shams said she also had been homeless before and returned to the streets after losing a job when she was evicted from a drug and rehab center.
Now they and a small puppy live under an interstate bypass, getting heat from a steam grate and a couple of blankets. They won't go to shelters because they would have to split up and they can't keep their dog.
"Right now, we're just trying to make ends meet," Robinson said. "We're just hoping God will bless us with a room and a job. If we could get a shower, a bath, something to eat. Just a place to stay for a little while, we could go from there."
Kansas City Patrolman Jim Schriever urged Robinson and Al-Shams to try another shelter — and then gave them extra gloves and socks. As a community interaction officer for eight years, Schriever has come to know most of the abandoned buildings, park sites and hidden camps where the unsheltered homeless congregate.
On Wednesday, Schriever checked an abandoned Chinese restaurant, a former candy warehouse and brushy areas along the interstates and inner-city streets. On a cold day around noon, Schriever assumed the people living in these broken-down, desolate places were somewhere scrounging for lunch or getting a free meal from charities.
"There's this idea that the homeless are all involved in illegal activities," Schriever said. "Sometimes they do get into survival straits, and they decide they'd rather steal than die. But people need to understand that context. It's not illegal to be homeless. These are human beings who need help."
Schriever is not optimistic about the immediate future.
"I just don't see it getting better anytime soon," he said. "With the economy, all the foreclosures, I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it turns around."
But Evelyn Craig, executive director of ReStart Inc., found some optimism because more people volunteered Wednesday and Kansas City Police Chief James Corwin has made homelessness a priority and because of the new Obama administration in Washington.
"Just a week ago, with President Obama being sworn in, people saw that we could make a difference," Craig said. "I think (the volunteers) said, 'It's one day, it's cold, if it's been cold for me, it's really cold for them. Maybe I can have a little longer day and make a difference.'"
However, sleet and snow that hit parts of Missouri this week slowed the count in other cities. Organizers in Springfield told the Springfield News-Leader they would do the best they could and then explain to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that weather hampered the effort.
St. Louis' director of the Department of Human Services, Bill Siedhoff, said the city and St. Louis County postponed their counts because of the weather. The count will be conducted Feb. 4, weather permitting, in hopes it will yield a more accurate figure, he said.