COLUMBIA — Although the Welcome Home Shelter for homeless veterans has capacity for only 10 residents, some nights the staff can make more room with an extra couch or two.
Many other nights, however, they simply can’t.
“People get turned away every week,” said Aneisa Mattox, executive director of Welcome Home. “I’ve had four applicants in two days and no space. That’s a record for me."
Opened in 1992, Welcome Home is Columbia’s only shelter specifically for homeless veterans. The shelter is located in a former office building on the southeast corner of Range Line Street and Business Loop 70.
In addition to food and housing, Welcome Home provides residents services such as bus tickets, Bible study classes, laundry detergent and toilet paper. Both the executive staff and the board of directors are entirely made up of veterans.
To meet growing demand, Welcome Home has begun laying the groundwork to move into a larger facility. The staff has found a mixed-use property at 216 Austin Ave., off Providence Road across from Hickman High School. With two stories and 6,700 square feet, the building could be converted to individual rooms with communal kitchens and living spaces, Mattox said.
Although Welcome Home has secured a contract to purchase the property, it has not begun demolition or removal of office equipment. One major obstacle remains: the $425,000 to pay for it.
When asked how much money has been raised so far, Mattox held up her fingers to form a zero.
“We’re putting out an emergency call for help,” she said. “We’re hoping to drum up interest and look for corporations and community groups to work on the project.”
In recent years, Mattox said, the ranks of homeless veterans have grown considerably following what she dubs a “perfect storm” of high unemployment caused by a tough economy, high divorce rates and an increasing number of veterans battling substance abuse, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve seen a spike in the number of applicants just in the last three months," Mattox said. "With so many college students and professionals, vets are having a hard time finding jobs in Columbia. For the level of disabilities these folks are reporting, a lot of them should have applied for disability or social security benefits a long time ago, but instead they took a small job to make ends meet, or they didn’t see themselves becoming disabled from injuries sustained during active duty.”
In addition to doubling capacity from 10 to 20 beds, the new facility would provide access for people with physical disabilities as well as female homeless veterans with children, which, Mattox said, is a growing phenomenon.
“(Currently) if female vets have kids, they can’t stay," Mattox said. "The new building hopes to address that on a case-by-case basis. At no other time have we had so many women serving. Some female vets have been in combat, or have been sexually traumatized, or both. As a female vet, I’ve felt the disparities in service provided. We have a harder time accessing services because there aren’t as many of us.”
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ranked mid-Missouri as the second-highest region in the state for homeless veterans, with about 150 throughout Boone County.
Mattox said she's had to turn away about that number of homeless veterans in the last two years.
"Right now, it's tight. I wish we had 'Extreme Makeover' to come help us," said Leon Stapleton, a 59-year-old Army veteran who has lived at the shelter for more than two months. "We wouldn't have the freedoms we have if it wasn't for veterans. If we do anything, it should be for vets."
Although Welcome Home is applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mattox said their chances are slim because of the record number of applications.
Instead, Welcome Home is planning to raise money the old-fashioned way — pounding the pavement. Beginning on Memorial Day, the shelter is kicking off its official fundraising campaign. The goal? To accumulate nearly half a million dollars by October.
“People can’t wait anymore. They’re on the street, and I have a sneaky suspicion they’re going to die there unless we do something,” Mattox said. “We’ve got veterans here in the home who have general labor and contract skills, who can do plumbing, drywall, electric work, masonry. They all want to help. But we need materials, and we need the property.”