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'The People That We Are Working With Are Humans Just Like Everybody Else'

Katie Burnham-Wilkins, left, smiles into the camera. She has long brown hair. Blake Witter, right, has curly dirty blonde hair. She also smiles into the camera.
Jonah McKeown

Katie Burnham-Wilkins is the Homeless Program Coordinator at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital, and Blake Witter is the Program Coordinator for HUD-VASH, a program that combines Housing and Urban Development vouchers with VA services to help homeless veterans get stable housing.

While the exact number of homeless veterans in the United States is hard to pin down, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a report last year that found that although the number of homeless veterans has overall decreased by 17% since 2015, the number of homeless veterans in Missouri has slightly increased, to nearly 600.

Katie and Blake spoke about the challenges of reaching out to and housing homeless veterans in the Columbia community.

Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org

Blake Witter: We're working with absolutely the most complex and vulnerable population that I've ever worked with in my life. It is incredibly difficult to watch someone struggle, and we watch people struggle again and again and again. 

We've housed over 300 people in the HUD/VASH program in the last decade at the VA, and fortunately the vast majority of those folks have been wildly successful. But there are folks in that number, too, that we've housed two, three, four times - that continue to struggle. It's hard to watch someone walk that walk without taking it personally and feeling like, "What did I do, how did I fail that individual?" 

Katie Burnham-Wilkins: You know, you hear about other communities who have said they've been able to end veteran homelessness in their community, or end chronic homelessness in their community. And so you look at that and you want to know, “what are they doing? What have what they done to have that succeed?”

So, it's just revamped my passion for believing that this is possible. That there may be a time in my life, in my community that I've lived in for the majority of my life - and love - that we wouldn't have people sleeping downtown. 

I don't think most people spend time going in homeless camps or seeing where people sleep behind buildings and just seeing how incredibly dire that housing situation is and what the quality of life looks like for that individual. 

It's heartbreaking. I think we have about a 150-ish people on our bi-name list right now, so there's a 150 people that are literally homeless in this community that don't have a house. So, that's not good enough for me, I hope it's not good enough for you.

Blake Witter: The people that we’re working with are humans just like everybody else. So there's absolutely lots to find common ground with people. 

Katie Burnham-Wilkins: Well they're so much like us. People always think homeless people are some weird sub-category of humanity... No, they're exactly like us.

They have moms and dads and sisters and brothers and kids and families and jobs and heartache and housing and didn't have housing and all the same stuff all of us deal with. 

The difference is they don't have the same kind of supports we've had. They didn't have the same kind of opportunities we were provided. They, you know, struggled early on with maybe a terrible trauma that led their life off track. There's just little forks in the road for people that lead them down a path to where they're not having housing - that could happen to any of us. 

Blake Witter: But at the end of the day watching someone that had nothing, they were at rock bottom, they were at the very worst part of their life... To see them rise up and be successful, it's pretty amazing. 

From a place of gratitude, I know it's changed me because I feel very grateful for the things that I have in my life, and the support systems that I have in my life. The fact that I have a home, the fact that I haven't struggled with housing ever in my life and that's something to really be grateful for. 

You know, you can't judge a book by its cover. You don't know what someone's struggle is. You have no idea what their background is or how they got to this place. So take nothing for granted.

This story was reported and produced by Jonah McKeown. 

Jonah McKeown is a Master's student at MU studying convergence journalism. His main interests include video reporting and editing as well as radio. Jonah graduated from Truman State University in 2016 with a degree in Communication, and hails from Mexico, Missouri.
Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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