'Love Thy Neighbor' program helps the homeless

Denise Damron, executive director of United Way, stands by coats that had been hung up and donated for those in need in front of Finn’s Food and Spirits in downtown Hannibal. Damron stressed people in the community must band together to take care of those in need during the cold weather.

HANNIBAL — The new “Love Thy Neighbor” fund was put into action by the Tri-County Alliance on Friday, to set up hotel stays and help restore utility service for people who are homeless or living with no heat.

The Tri-County Alliance is a special project of the United Way of the Mark Twain Area. Donations to the fund will be used to provide hotel stays for people in Marion, Ralls, Monroe, Lewis and Shelby counties. Denise Damron, executive director of the United Way of the Mark Twain Area, said she and fellow community leaders have seen a need for a warming center for people who are homeless or living in a house without heat. Hannibal’s sole homeless shelter closed two years ago, and the “Love Thy Neighbor” fund is a step toward a long-term solution when the temperature drops.

Before the cold snap hit last week and the beginning of this week, Damron reached out to local churches to see if they might be able to provide a warming center. Unfortunately, COVID concerns, space limitations and plumbing issues were among the challenges to finding a space.

“Nonetheless, we needed to find some solution for individuals facing tough situations during this cold snap,” Damron said.

So Damron set up the United Way office number to forward calls to her cell phone in case anyone needed assistance. Working with a local hotel, she arranged a discounted rate so people could have a warm place to stay. She also reached out to officials with the Hannibal Police Department and Northeast Missouri Emergency Communications, who made sure she got the word about anyone in need.

Damron hadn’t received any calls over the weekend, but she was prepared regardless of the hour.

“That was the biggest piece there, we have to make sure people’s needs are met,” Damron said, noting many local agencies have run out of money to pay for hotel stays.

For the past two years, Hannibal has been without a homeless shelter. But the situation could change as community leaders from local social services agencies and churches have been meeting regularly to determine a solution. Unused money from the “Love Thy Neighbor” fund will serve as the foundation toward plans for a “pop-up shelter”.

In 2019, sisters Dorothy Whitley and Verna Nofziger faced the difficult decision to close Hope House, which they started in 1994. The facility provided temporary housing and necessities for homeless people, but the building’s deteriorating physical condition and limited funding were among the factors which forced the closure.

When they closed Hope House’s doors, Nofziger and Whitley expressed their hope there would be a shelter in the future.

“People really care about the homeless. They have a heart for them,” Whitley said.

During the community meetings, Damron said plans have been discussed for a “pop-up shelter” which could be in a church basement, unused building or other suitable space. Finding a location has been a challenge so far, but Damron is hopeful plans will come together for a shelter by next winter.

If anyone knows about a person or family who is homeless or living in a house without heat, Damron stressed the importance of calling United Way at 573-221-2761 so they can get the assistance they need.

Donations or potential shelter location opportunities can be shared by visiting unitedwaymta.org and selecting “Love Thy Neighbor” as the campaign to support. People can also send payment to Tri-County Alliance at P.O. Box 81, Hannibal, Mo. 63401, with “Love Thy Neighbor” in the memo.

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