COLUMBIA — As she slowly drives down an empty industrial-park road in Columbia, Anesia Mattox is looking for signs of life.
Footprints in the dirt, tents inside the treeline or anything else that might indicate the presence of someone living without a home.
A neatly folded sleeping bag and some food in an abandoned warehouse are both good signs of life, but their owner is nowhere to be found.
Anesia leaves a small card with her name and contact information on the sleeping bag, hoping the owner might contact her in the future.
When she finds someone living in an abandoned warehouse or a tent-camp in the woods, she'll offer them food and any other help she can give.
But she will also try and determine if they are a veteran of the armed forces. Anesia is the executive director of Welcome Home Incorporated, a place for veterans in need of a helping hand. As a veteran of the Gulf War, Anesia feels a personal connection with the men at the shelter.
Katie Burnham, the homeless program coordinator at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital in Columbia, said there are currently 90 to 100 veterans enrolled in the homeless programs at the VA Hospital who are or were homeless recently. At the same time, Burnham notes that because of the transient lifestyle of homeless veterans — sometimes traveling between cities — the current numbers under-represent the true homeless veteran population.
Once a veteran in need gets enrolled in the Veterans Administration network, something Anesia often helps the them do, they are directed to programs like Welcome Home Inc., where they can find help.
That help comes in the form of warm meals, a place to sleep and any other material needs they might have.
Once they have these things, the veterans can begin seeking treatment for the medical issues many of them posses, be it post-traumatic stress disorder or a myriad of physical ailments.
Anesia also helps them find the benefits for which they are they are eligible through social services and the Veterans Administration.
Eventually she tries to get them into stable housing on their own, but it takes time, and the majority spend anywhere from three to nine months at the shelter. During that time, Anesia checks in on them every day.
The shelter was founded in 1992, and thousands of veterans in need have spent time there since.
Not nearly as encouraging is the number of veterans — about 150 — she estimates she has had to turn away in the last year alone because of a lack of space.
Welcome Home Inc. will be moving into a larger facility in the future, but Anesia admits more needs to be done to help these people, especially the quickly growing population of homeless female veterans, for whom there are far fewer resources available.
For now, she will keep working to help the increasing population of veterans in need.
Each one that moves out of Welcome Home Inc. and into stable housing is a personal victory for Anesia.
Veterans Crisis Intervention Hotline: 1-888-899-9377