The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 24, 2010

Shelter residents, operators react to U.S. homeless plan

JOPLIN, Mo. — For the residents at the Souls Harbor shelter in Joplin, the problem isn’t just being without a home, it’s being without a job.

“If you give us a job, we can build ourselves back up,” said Shirley Ward.

Ward and her husband, Chris Ward, have been living at the shelter since June 2 after losing their factory jobs and — according to Shirley Ward — “everything else.”

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced “Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” which pledges to eliminate child and family homelessness, and with it situations like what the Wards are facing, in 10 years.

1.6 million

A government report said 1.6 million people stayed in homeless shelters last year, and that overall family homelessness was up 30 percent from 2007 to 2009.

Joplin has a homeless population that surveys in the past few year suggest ranges from 350 to 450 people.

Jan Burres, Souls Harbor shelter manager, said this week that staff members routinely throw mattresses on the floor to house as many people as possible.

But there are still people sleeping on the streets in Joplin.

“Opening Doors” calls for more subsidized and low-income housing, something residents at Souls Harbor say they also support, but they iterate that jobs are the key.

“The facilities are here; the jobs are not,” said Paul Crissman, a Souls Harbor resident.

Requirements for staying at Souls Harbor include spending the day doing whatever is required to get one’s life back on track, including job hunting.

On Wednesday, the Wards walked about two miles from the shelter to Northpark Mall to look for work. The same day, shelter resident Kahlie Pruitt said she walked to job interviews at McDonald’s, Aegis Communications Group and Dollar General. Pruitt moved into the shelter after the friends with whom she was living moved to Oklahoma. She said she hopes to get a house and go back to school to become a surgical technician.

“I love school,” she said. “I’ve been out for a year, and it’s killing me. I miss it.”

She’ll turn 20 in August.

Over a dinner of ham and beans this week at the shelter, the Wards, Pruitt and fellow resident Lorna Paris swapped possibilities for jobs and for federal programs that could aid them in going back to school.

Paris said she worked in in-home care for the elderly before a car accident cost her the job. She said she wants to go back to school and get enough training to go into some sort of social work with children, but first she has to find a job.

“I’m over 55, so I’ll qualify for some (federal) aid, but most of it’s going to have to be funded by me,” she said.

Jobs needed

Joan Lewis, director of Souls Harbor, said the federal plan’s emphasis on affordable housing is headed in the right direction, but, as far as Joplin is concerned, jobs are the most important need.

“If we could get a factory or two, we’d be great,” she said. “But when they do get a job, finding housing that they can afford is very hard.”

Lewis said she doesn’t believe homelessness can be ended in 10 years.

“I don’t see any future that there isn’t going to be homelessness,” she said. “Souls Harbor has been here for 29 years, and we’ve never run out of people.”

The federal plan also proposes to end veteran and chronic homelessness in five years. Burres said she likes the idea, but she doesn’t have a lot of faith in it.

Burres said Souls Harbor residents, especially those who are chronically homeless, come and go. As she opened doors on the top-floor family dormitory, she pointed to rooms that people have recently vacated. She said “not a big percentage” of the residents go on to reclaim normal lives.

“Most of them, I wonder what happens to them,” she said. “I don’t know where they are, or if they’re alive.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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