They sleep amid the weeds where The Oak Ridge Boys once played.


They sleep amid the weeds where The Oak Ridge Boys once played.
They hang out in parks on days when the swing sets are silent.
They wash along the banks of a creek where pioneers did the same almost 200 years ago.
They’re homeless, and many believe their numbers are increasing in the Hannibal area.
To prove their point, advocates did a count Wednesday as part of a statewide campaign. They also held a meal and program at First United Methodist Church.
“Somebody’s been here,” Leslie Jones said as she walked through the overgrown brush at the former Riverfront Amphitheater, a Hannibal concert site that hasn’t been used for years.
“See the matted grass,” said Jones, who was helping with the count. “Somebody slept here recently.”
A nearby building has a fresh piece of plywood, a sure sign that it was boarded up to keep out unwelcome guests.
Across the railroad tracks, a large encampment had been carved out of a muddy bank under a canopy of trees along Bear Creek.
“They kind of like to stay out of the way,” Jones said. “People are rude and vulgar toward them. Not everybody has a heart for homeless people.”

No bag ladies
Forget the stereotypes.
You’re unlikely to see a “bum on the street” or a “bag lady pushing a grocery cart” in the Hannibal area.
“Most of these people have lived good lives,” Jones said. “Bad situations or bad choices have led them to being homeless.”
Kevin Williams is pastor of Embassy Christian Center, one of the sponsors of Tuesday’s local count.
“We’ve had people who were very well-to-do who are now homeless,” Williams said. “The economy has changed the whole game.”
In many cases, people who have lost jobs or who faced other hardships have no choice but to seek shelter where they can find it.
Perhaps a secluded spot in Riverview Park or an abandoned building near the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge.
It could be on a friend’s couch or at the Hope House shelter.
The federal government doesn’t consider such cases as homelessness. Local agencies hope to change that.
“That’s still being homeless,” said Melissa Williams of the North East Community Action Corporation, which aides low-income people.
Williams said the problem is just as acute in Ralls, Pike, Lewis, Shelby and Monroe counties, where counting also was done Wednesday.

Invisible faces
Roy Owens can spot it right away.
But he says many people can walk right by a homeless person and not know it.
That’s because the homeless in the Hannibal area don’t fit the stereotypes found in larger cities.
Owens is an administrator of Bridge Street Ministries, which provides help.
“There’s a lot more homeless than we really know because we don’t see them,” Owens said. “I could come up with 15 guys who are sleeping on somebody’s floor.”
Another huge contributing factor that’s easily missed, advocates say, is the skyrocketing cost of utilities.
While assistance is available, especially in the winter, it’s often limited.
“They can kind of get by in the summer if their electric has been turned off, but in the winter they need to have heat,” said Dave Dexheimer of Douglass Community Services, which provides outreach programs.
Economic reality also prevents the homeless from going to areas where jobs, housing and assistance are more plentiful.
“It used to be that people could move to those areas and get on,” Pastor Williams said. “But now, there’s nothing.”

Numbers equal dollars
The importance of the homeless count boils down to dollars.
The bigger the number of homeless, the more likely an area is to get funding.
A count is done every six months. The most recent one, in January, showed almost 7,700 homeless people in Missouri, a 23 percent increase from the previous year.
Most are in the St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield areas.
Local advocates say the stigma keeps many people from wanting to be included in the figures.
“A lot of them don’t want to admit to it,” Jones said. “It’s embarrassing.”
The trouble is that Northeast Missouri won’t get its share of federal and state dollars used to build housing and provide other services if an accurate count isn’t made.
Dexheimer says it’s already happening.
“We’re having to help more people, plus we’re taking a drastic (funding) cut,” he said.
The number of homeless people documented during the January count in Hannibal was 15. This year, it’s expected to approach 20.

Far-reaching effects
Homelessness may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Advocates fear the numbers of those who are close to it are even greater.
The Hannibal area always has had heart, but many who work with the low-income say charitable donations have dropped even as needs have risen.
In addition to agencies such as NECAC and Douglass, many people rely upon such volunteer programs.
Loaves and Fishes, which is housed at First United Methodist, provides hot meals weeknights from September to June.
Faith Miracle Ministries on Willow Street provides meals twice a week and has a variety of other services.
“People just don’t have enough to get from one paycheck to the next,” said Faith Miracle Pastor Kim Britt. “We’ve got whole families who come here with nothing trying to find help.”
Many area churches fill the gap with food pantries, clothing closets and other assistance.
But, like government programs, help is limited and donations don’t seem to stretch as far as they once did.
That’s why Jones was traipsing narrow paths, wiping aside spider webs and sticking her head through broken-out windows Wednesday.
“I have a heart for homeless people,” she said.