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Fighting the Stigma of Homelessness: ‘Imagine Yourself with No Money, No Job, No Transportation – How Would You Pull Yourself Up?’

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Provided by Steve Hollis and Darren Morton
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Steve Hollis and Darren Morton work closely together combating the issue of homelessness in Columbia. Hollis is the Human Services Manager of Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, and Morton is the Director of Turning Point, an organization that works with people experiencing homelessness.

They spoke about breaking the stigmas surrounding unhoused people, and about how important it is for the entire community to understand how difficult it can be to “pull yourself up” when there are no more bootstraps.

Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words.

Steve Hollis: We have the national data to show that folks that have experienced homelessness that we put in housing, they don't fail at housing and any higher rate than the general population.

That is a really important thing to know – lots of lots of people get evicted from housing for all kinds of reasons. So, one of the things we try to do is fight stigmas. Another big stigma is that homeless folks don't work.

I think one of the neatest things about programs that use volunteers – like the soup kitchen at Loaves and Fishes, which is also generously housed by Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, and also Room at the Inn, which is a faith-based effort amongst faith community.

When volunteers go there, every year, I always hear from the volunteers that they're amazed at how many of the folks that stay at Room at the Inn have to get up and go to work. I think there’s a lot of stigma that folks don't work.

And so, one of the things we do as a homeless service provider community is try to fight some of that stigma. An unstated part of all this is the services the Turning Point provides people dignity – gives them the place they can go each day will be welcomed and warm and have an address.

I always tell people, “It's easy to be kind of indifferent, and essentially blame people for their homelessness.” I think people would be shocked to hear the story – the life stories of some of these folks and what they've been through.

And I always say, “Imagine yourself with no money with pretty significant mental illness, no health insurance, no job, no transportation – how would you pull yourself up by your bootstraps?”

I would also say that so many of us are really, really on the edge of losing our housing. So many Americans live paycheck to paycheck now and are deeply in debt – especially after the pandemic. So, we really try to convey that this could happen to any of us.

Darren Morton: Circumstances truly plays a big part, and I think people just don't realize that part of it behind, like, what's really happening behind this person that’s flying this sign.

I think so many people want to just look, judge, and think that they just know – they just got it figured out that this person's flying his sign for this reason, or for that reason, or they're just trying to get a quick buck to go do this, that or whatever.

But there's so much talent, there's so much talent and just such people behind these signs, and we just don't know – people don't take time to truly see what's behind the sign or what's within the person.

So, like, I think of like the circumstance(s) and just how it takes getting to know this community. It takes getting to see this community. That's one thing – seeing them. Seeing that they are just humans just like we are.

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Becca Newton is a student reporter and producer at KBIA. She will graduate from the University of Missouri in spring 2022 with a degree in Multimedia Convergence Journalism and minors in Peace Studies and History.