Homelessness on the rise in Joplin

Friday, March 2, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

JOPLIN — Thirty years ago this month, Art Jones and a few others opened the doors on Main Street to Joplin's homeless.

Souls Harbor served two people on its first night.

Jones saw homeless people walking the streets of downtown Joplin while traveling through the area. At a gospel music performance in the city, he met Marvin and Joan Lewis and told them about his idea of opening a shelter.

They rented the building on Main Street for $100 a month, with the Lewises donating $100 for the first month's rent.

Built in 1910, the building served as a hotel in the early years of the 20th century.

Jones died in 1992. His wife, Georgia, tried to run Souls Harbor for a time, but she turned it over to the Lewises. Marvin Lewis died in 2005, and Joan Lewis has been running the shelter since.

"It was a walk of faith," she said.

Last year, 706 people stayed at the homeless shelter at least one night. That includes 33 children and 73 veterans. Souls Harbor also served 17,720 meals and distributed food baskets to 4,425 area families.

Among those at the shelter last Wednesday was 18-year-old Shelby Ball. She said she was to start a new job at a fast-food restaurant the next day.

Ball, of Wyandotte, Okla., said she had moved to Indiana. When things didn't work out there, she returned to Wyandotte but no longer had a place to live. She said she was referred to Souls Harbor by a woman she met.

"It's really not that bad," Ball said of staying at the shelter. She said the workers provided food and helped her find a job.

"They told me to save some money and they'll help me to find a place," Ball said about getting an apartment. "It was scary at first. I've never been in this situation."

John Frazier, 35, of Anderson, Mo., said he found himself in legal and financial trouble after his wife left him. While he was in jail, he said, thieves took everything from his home. He didn't have a job, and he was broke.

"It's kind of left me on my head," he said. "I lost a lot of stuff."

He has been staying at Souls Harbor for about a month, and he said he now has landed a good job.

"This is a wonderful place," Frazier said of Souls Harbor. "There are people here you can relate to and talk with. You realize you're not the only one facing problems."

He said he's saving up money so he can buy a truck and a house. He spoke while eating a chili dog during dinner at Souls Harbor.

"You've got to pick yourself up and go again," he said. "You can take your struggles and learn from them, or you can let them overwhelm you."

Lewis said of the people who stay at Souls Harbor: "We've seen their struggles. There are so many needs."

Souls Harbor started with the shelter, and it later expanded to its chapel and offices.

It wasn't struck by the May 22 tornado, but Souls Harbor has experienced indirect effects of the storm. Lewis said because donations understandably were going to tornado victims, donations to the shelter dried up for a few months after the storm.

She said only a few tornado victims initially sought shelter at Souls Harbor, because government agencies and other charities took care of most of them. More of those affected by the tornado have been showing up lately, after their funding has run out.

Lewis also said there are more single women staying at the shelter than ever before. Single women and families stay in an upstairs dormitory, while single men stay in a dormitory downstairs.

But even without the tornado, the demand for services has increased steadily over the past 10 years. Lewis said it seems that more and more working people cannot afford a place to live because of increasing prices and low salaries.

"Rents keep going higher, and people working minimum-wage jobs can't keep up," she said.

Souls Harbor relies solely on donations. It accepts no assistance from federal, state or local governments.

Serving the homeless has not always gone smoothly. Over the years, the city has cited Souls Harbor for building code violations. That was in the 1990s, and the shelter raised $18,000 for the needed repairs.

In 1999, 41-year-old George Huffman, from California, who had been diagnosed with pneumonia at St. John's Regional Medical Center, returned to Souls Harbor. On Feb. 19 Huffman missed a mandatory chapel service without an excuse and was "checked out" of Souls Harbor because of it, according to news reports at the time. Four days later, he was found dead of hypothermia under the Seventh Street viaduct.

Lewis said all residents are made aware of the shelter's rules and requirements, which also prohibit anyone using alcohol or nonprescription drugs from staying there.

Lewis also is familiar with an oft-whispered criticism: Souls Harbor is not a good fit for a downtown district that is trying to bring in business.

She points out, however, that when Souls Harbor started, the buildings on Main Street were decrepit and, in her case, vacant.

"They have to understand, except for the grace of God, it could be any of us," Lewis said of those who criticize her efforts.

Joplin, meanwhile, launched an effort nearly four years ago to build a homeless intake center as part of its Headed for Home initiative. The center would offer emergency shelter, support housing, permanent housing and other services. The implementation committee most recently has been looking for possible locations in Joplin.

Until then, Souls Harbor is one of the few options for area homeless, with a population that reaches the hundreds in Joplin.

Lewis said she distinguishes between what she terms "street people," who almost always return to the streets, and the true homeless, who are actively seeking work and a place to live.

Tammy Walker, community development director for the Economic Security Corp. and a member of the Homeless Coalition of Jasper and Newton Counties, said she has great respect and admiration for Lewis. She said the ESC refers many of its clients to Souls Harbor.

David Crossley, housing coordinator for the Joplin Salvation Army and a member of the coalition, said Souls Harbor was the first to recognize that there was a problem with homelessness in Joplin and the first to take action to do something about it.

"I think the whole area's benefited from them being here," Crossley said. "They kind of pointed the way for the rest of us."

The number of homeless in Jasper and Newton counties has varied over the past five years from a low of 290 in the summer of 2008 to 457 in the winter 2011, according to periodic homeless counts by the Homeless Coalition of Jasper and Newton Counties.

The 1,724 total from the January 2012 homeless count is preliminary and not official, and includes those living in transitional housing after the tornado, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency housing.

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