Unsheltered: Springfield's Homeless and the Pandemic

In this 10-part local Sense of Community series, KSMU's news director, Jennifer Moore, shares the stories of the unsheltered homeless residents of Springfield, Missouri as their lives are upended by the coronavirus pandemic.  Drawing from dozens of interviews, "Unsheltered" looks at shelter capacity, hygiene, food, mental health, coronavirus prevention, unique risks to women, employment disruptions, policy on homeless camps, local CARES Act expenditures and how other communities are using coronavirus relief funds to shelter their homeless. 

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

In this tenth and final part of our series, Unsheltered, we look at how other communities are using federal CARES Act funds to shelter their homeless citizens—and ask whether Springfield might glean insights from their experiences.

Each community’s response to homelessness during the pandemic has been unique.  And in a year when extraordinary sums of money are flowing from federal CARES Act coronavirus relief funding, this has led to some creative solutions nationwide.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

So far, Springfield has managed to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 in its homeless shelters. Not every city can say that. For example, San Diego and Colorado Springs are both dealing with outbreaks in shelters this week.

“We've been very fortunate. We haven't seen an outbreak in our population,” said Adam Bodendieck, the director of homeless services at Community Partnership of the Ozarks, which administers the local Continuum of Care mandated with orchestrating help for the homeless.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

“Get a job, you lazy bum!”  That phrase—or a colorful variation of it—is something many homeless people in Springfield have heard before.

So for this segment, we’re going to hear from three men who are trying to do just that:  get a job...while experiencing homelessness during a pandemic.

Struggle to obtain official documents

The first person is 21-year-old River Herron. On the night before Thanksgiving, he was huddled under a blanket with a friend outside a building downtown.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

On the cold morning of Monday, November 23, Laura Schaeffer was at a drop-in center for the homeless in central Springfield. The National Weather Service confirms the temperature dropped to 28 degrees overnight, but Springfield’s two emergency cold weather shelters did not open.

“I cannot disclose where I was [last night]. But it was in a community that fights for all kinds of things, including your life,” she said.

Schaeffer said violence erupted at the first location. One man ended up in the Emergency Room, she said.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

Rhonda Galbraith knew she wanted her church to serve as an emergency cold weather shelter for homeless women. But there was a catch:  the church she pastors, Grace United Methodist Church in Springfield, was located near a school. And she knew that would make things delicate.

"But we made an appeal to Planning and Zoning and City Council three years ago. And we have a working relationship with the school across the street from us, and they gave us their blessing," Galbraith said.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

Peter Garcelon was homeless when he first moved to Springfield.

“I've been in prison. And I spent 10 years in prison. And after I got out, I turned my life over to the Lord,” Garcelon said.

Now that he’s found housing, he tries to spread encouragement at the Veterans Coming Home Center, a drop-in place for the homeless in central Springfield. Garcelon says the pandemic has brought extra anxiety and despair to this fragile population.

Provided by Salvation Army Springfield

365 days a year, the Salvation Army’s Frontline Feeding program in Springfield serves meals to the homeless.

"We serve that lunch rain, sunshine or snow, pandemics, whatever," said Jeff Smith, a spokesman for the Salvation Army in Springfield. He says in more typical years, that program has provided a seated, hot lunch indoors. But once the pandemic struck, the organization had to figure out how to serve the meals while also staying safe and keeping in line with local ordinances.

So they quickly switched to lunches to-go, like a carry-out service.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

The first way the pandemic changed things for 48-year-old William Still was that he no longer had access to a toilet or shower.

"McDonald's, Hardee's, Wendy's and anywhere that had a restroom you could use [before the pandemic]. And now, you're down to Fast and Friendly, if you make a purchase," he said, referring to a nearby gas station. 

He’s a US Army veteran, originally from Oklahoma City, and he’s been homeless for a year and a half, he said.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

On the eve of Thanksgiving this year, it was rainy and cold in Springfield. But the two emergency cold weather shelters didn’t open that night, based on when and how long the National Weather Service predicted the temperature would hover around freezing.  

So a tiny outreach team, led by a local pastor and her band of volunteers, went to work like a well-oiled machine.

Jennifer Moore / KSMU

We begin our series, Unsheltered, at a church—the East Sunshine Church of Christ in Springfield—on a recent Monday evening just as a city bus is pulling up. 

Out file about two dozen men, most carrying backpacks or blankets or a rolling a suitcase. A second bus will follow a few minutes later.

It’s half past seven o’clock and the temperature is quickly dropping to its projected low of 22 degrees.  And just like that, this church is transforming into an emergency cold weather shelter for the homeless.