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For Area Homeless, Christmas "Just Another Day"

http://ozarkspub.vo.llnwd.net/o37/KSMU/audio/mp3/forareahom_1037.mp3

In the chaos of the holiday season, it's easy to forget about those who may not have a tree, or presents, or even a roof over their heads. KSMU's Jennifer Moore talked to a local homeless man about what he would like this Christmas.

On the sidewalk of Commercial street in downtown Springfield stands a thin, wrinkled man who looks much older than his 43 years. His windbreaker and tattered jeans don't offer much warmth on this drizzly December day.

Steve is one of Springfield's 850 homeless people. All he owns are the clothes on his back, and the sleeping bag and tent he sleeps in every night. While others look forward to Christmas, for the homeless, it's pretty much just another day.

"Everybody's with their families, and I'm happy for them, you know. Me, I'll be happy to be alive, pretty much. Everybody's just trying to make it, you know, survive another day. That's pretty much it."

Like most homeless people, Steve wasn't always on the street. He's a veteran of the armed forces, and was stationed in Germany as a combat engineer 23 years ago. After his wife left him, he went into depression, and he has been homeless ever since. Although he knows there are shelters for homeless people, Steve says he doesn't want to live off of handouts and is looking for a job so he can support himself.

He used to celebrate Christmas like everyone else, with a tree and presents and laughter. But this coming Tuesday, when he wakes up in his tent with an empty stomach, his main Christmas wish will be far from average.

"It'd be nice to get some work so I could get a room and maybe something hot to eat, you know?" he says.

And, he says, he wishes his fellow countrymen would try to respect and understand him, instead of just seeing him as a so-called bum.

"Don't look down on people like us, because anybody can end up in this situation. You see, I've lived in their world, I've been there. But they've never lived in mine."

The homeless in the Ozarks do have some options: they can find a warm room and a bed in the Missouri Hotel, a homeless shelter downtown operated by The Kitchen. They can also grab a free cup of coffee or take a shower at Bill's Place on Commercial St., where Steve sometimes hangs out. But those are material things and for people like Steve, they are no replacement for the family and inner warmth he's missing this holiday season.

Michelle Garan of the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, keeps tabs on how many homeless there are in the area. She says that out of the 850 homeless individuals in the Springfield area, about 600 of them are currently staying in shelters. The other 250 are on the street or living in cars or under somebody's garage. Many of them, she said, are children.

"I know that there are unsheltered children residing in the community. We know that because when they check into shelters, they are reporting on their past. We learn of it when they talk about where they've been, what they've done," she said.

Garan stresses that it is important for area residents to realize that some children in southwest Missouri will wake up in a cold, crowded car this Christmas morning, and she stresses that it's important for the more fortunate to do something about it.

"It is heartbreaking when we think of the children who don't wake up to the magic of Christmas. I know our shelters try to do everything they can to make Christmas special, but nothing replaces a home of their own where they can wake up and find a stocking. When you're talking to a mom who just wants to find food or lodging for the night, that's their Christmas present. We need to be doing that, we need to be giving that to people every single day," she said.

Anyone interested in helping the homeless this holiday season can begin by contacting The Kitchen at 837-1500, or Victory Mission at 831-6387. Each organization houses two shelters.

For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore.