This story is part of our series "Shortage in Rich Land" on Missouri's Bootheel region. Click here to see all of the stories.
Anthony Smith has a spiel he will deliver many, many times today.
“I’m Anthony Smith with the Family Counseling Center," he says, "and today is identified as the 'point-in-time count' for the state of Missouri. The governor’s office does this annually. We try to conduct a winter count to identify individuals who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless in our community.”
Smith is the director of housing and vocational services at Family Counseling Center. The organization provides an array of services across southeastern Missouri, including the Safe Haven in Kennett, which has eight apartments for the chronically homeless. Safe Haven is where he works.
Today is a big day. He is trying to count every homeless person in Dunklin County. And, thankfully, he is not alone. A small team of volunteers – who all also happen to be employees of the Family Counseling Center – pile into a minivan for this endeavor.
Emily Parker is driving them in her van. Smith sits up front. In the back are Paula Driskill and Lisa Brown.
Their first stops today are to the local police and count sheriff to let them know the count is happening in case they receive any 911 calls about people breaking into abandoned buildings.
Smith and Parker walk into the office of Bob Holder, Dunklin County sheriff. It’s in a converted old paper factory that’s also home to the county jail.
Smith gives his spiel. When he’s done Sheriff Holder recounts a recent run-in his office had with a homeless man.
“We had a situation back last summer that the Blytheville P.D. brings a guy over here, dumps him off at the Pemiscot County Hospital,” he says.
“They didn’t like it,” he continues. “Pemiscot County takes him and dumps him back over in Blytheville. They call an ambulance and the ambulance brings him over here and puts him in this hospital.”
Resources are pretty sparse down here in the Bootheel. No single town has every service to meet the homeless community’s needs. The apartments at Safe Haven in Kennett, for example, are permanent beds for the chronically homeless. The nearest emergency shelters are either in Blytheville, Ark., and Paragould, Ark., both about 30 miles away.
And the closest shelter that’s still in Missouri is in Poplar Bluff, about 45 miles to the north. Homeless individuals are often transported between communities for their various needs. But because everyone down here is already strained for resources, this leads to the type of "not in my back yard" disputes Sheriff Holder is describing.
And both men agree those resources have been strained even more ever since the state’s mental health center up in Farmington, Mo., shut down its involuntary psychiatric care services back in 2010.
“When they closed Farmington,” Sheriff Holder says, “that was a big mistake.”
“There is nowhere to house these individuals," he says. "We were able to take on six of them in Pemiscot County at our facility, but there’s just a number of those individuals wandering around the community. They were there for a reason.”
Anthony leaves a stack of point-in-time count surveys with the sheriff and says good-bye.
“If you run into some problems let me know,” Sheriff Holder tells him, “and be careful."
They head back to the van.
The crew is equipped with all the tools they need for this count: flashlights, bottles of water, warm blankets, even an emergency radio. But perhaps none is more important than these surveys.
The point-in-time count happens one day a year in Missouri, this year’s date is January 28th. In every county in the state, teams like this one are responsible for filling out a survey for every person in their area who has no place to sleep for the night.
The questions are pretty basic: What is the individual’s living situation? What’s their reason for being homeless? How old are they? What’s their race and ethnicity? Are they a veteran? Any medical conditions?
The surveys are sent to the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which compiles the data and sends it to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The count is actually required by HUD to help track each state’s progress toward ending homelessness.
The data is also used as a planning tool by both the state commission and by HUD – which is government speak for deciding where money gets spent.
Back in the minivan, the next stop, and one of the most exciting, is a wooded area behind the local Wal-Mart. There is a trail back here and the whole point-in-time crew pushes through the overgrowth looking for any signs a homeless person has been sleeping here. Lisa Brown doesn’t see any.
“Haven’t been back here in a while,” she says pointing to the brush. “It’s grown up.”
As she’s talking, Smith breaks through to the other side.
“I don’t see any signs of anyone inhabiting over here,” he says.
Parker pops out of the brush and into the grassy corridor where he is standing.
“Well this is a nice hide out,” she says.
They find some empty beer bottles and coffee cups, but they all agree if someone does sleep here, they’ve probably already found a warm place to wait out the day. Back to the minivan.
They make many more stops throughout the morning, mostly passing out surveys to other agencies that might encounter homeless people. Kennett Headstart, for example, as well as some faith-based assistance organizations and a non-profit that assists migrant farm workers with housing.
But the first homeless person they encounter all morning is Michael Wilson, a resident they see back at Safe Haven when they break for lunch. The story of how Wilson wound up here helps explain why.
“I've done a lot of house hopping, you know, from friends and family,” he says while sitting at a table in the common area.
“But you know, being an alcoholic,” he adds, “they’re not welcoming, you know? Because nobody wants somebody like that around. Especially if they have kids.”
During last year’s point-in-time count, only 11 "unsheltered" homeless people were counted in Dunklin County. HUD’s definition of unsheltered homeless doesn’t include people like Michael who find temporary shelter. The "sheltered" make up the majority of the homeless down here. At 22, there were twice as many sheltered homeless counted in Dunklin last year as there were unsheltered.
It’s a lot harder to count people who have a temporary place to sleep, but those individuals still have a need for services. And Smith says that underscores the importance of the point-in-time count.
“Our situation is more cumbersome,” he says, sitting behind his desk at the Safe Haven.
“We have to do a lot more due diligence to ensure that individuals see that we have homeless issues here in these small communities.”
The team eats at the Chinese buffet next to the Wal-Mart, before quickly heading back out. There’s a lot of ground to cover today and they’ve only barely left Kennett.
The next week, after all the surveys were collected, the unofficial count was 11 unsheltered individuals and 35 sheltered.