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(Scroll down episode for Vita Nova Village and Kristen Radaker Sheafer audio segments)
Judging by the amount of blame that homeless people get for society’s ills, whether nationwide or locally you would think their numbers would be much higher. According to the latest report published on endhomelessness.org about 580,000 people in the U.S. are considered homeless.
In Missouri, according to a point in time account that took place at the end of January 2020, the state’s portion of those individuals is 6,500.
In Joplin, MO, the number of homeless is 210, according to the latest count by The Homeless Coalition conducted during the final ten days of January in 2021.
Homelessness is a national problem with people and organizations working locally to help end it, including Tammy Walker of the Economic Security Corporation of Southwest Missouri. She’s been working for nearly 26-years to end homelessness in S.W. Missouri. She considers Joplin’s Homeless Coalition hidden in plain view.
“The Homeless Coalition has been around for a very long time. And I think I share with the city council that I feel like we’re the best-kept secret. We are a group of 20 to 25 organizations all partnering and coordinating.”
Regardless of where the homeless population resides, they are often the low-hanging fruit for those looking to score political points on those who are less fortunate. During a recent Joplin city council meeting member, Phil Stinnett asserted that homelessness was on the rise in the city, although Walker rebukes that claim.
“Yes, the last ten days in January is when we do around an annual point in time count. And really, for 2012 and 2013, those were really our highest numbers, or after the tornado in 2011, we had to incorporate all the FEMA THU units into our data. They were considered homeless. So that was kind of the anomaly in our years. But really, if you look at the last 13-years, we’ve had a 35% decline, in the last 5-years, a 22%.”
Walker says The Homeless Coalition meets people where they are. In Joplin’s alleys, street corners, and wooded areas, both to count the number of homeless individuals and offer them services.
Walker says the heart of the issue for most of Joplin’s homeless isn’t living on the streets but the lack of affordable housing in the community.
“So the city just recently did a report, analysis on the housing market. And I looked through it, and even though it says we have 1,910 units for lower-income. It’s not enough. The demand far exceeds what we have available. Also offered, being a housing provider myself, a lot of the individuals that I serve are single and are looking for a smaller unit with utilities included; you just can’t find that; there’s very few.”
Developing trust and relationships is essential in any successful endeavor; decreasing homelessness is no different. When part of your job is surveying the number of homeless, and some of the individuals refuse to leave the streets regardless of their circumstance, the homeless population essentially become your co-workers.
Walker says the Economic Security Corporation of Southwest Missouri and The Homeless Coalition have been successful at finding people housing and keeping them in it.
“We have really good statistics on people retaining their housing once we help them get into it, at 98%. We went down one percent, from 99 to 98. But it’s working. We’re getting people into housing. We’re wrapping services around them, and everybody has different needs. And they’re retaining it. So that’s a big deal where a lot of people don’t understand.”
Vita Nova Village is a non-profit that was formed last year due to “complaints on Facebook” about homelessness in Joplin, according to Executive Director and co-founder Rhonda Thompson. She spent a career as a social worker and is well accustomed to connecting people and families with public services. Thompson says the group has been proactive and wants to make an impact in Joplin.
“We came together to come up with solutions, and after meeting several times, our community needs a bridge from the emergency shelters to housing permanence.”
Thompson calls what Vita Nova Village wants to provide in Joplin a hand-up, not a handout. And it’s just not housing that the non-profit is seeking to bring to the area. They also want to provide education, and vocational training, helping people to live a more normal life. She says they are working with Soul Harbor and Watered Gardens in Joplin to help them vet possible individuals for a future VNV location.
“People that are ready to engage in some kind of training. People who are motivated to get on a solid base and head toward permanence.”
But how do you create a list of qualifications for people who commonly have so many variables? Thompson says that it can’t be a one size fits all approach, and since VNV is a new organization, they are working from the ground up to specialize their program for people who reside in Joplin.
“Somebody that is willing to engage in a long-term program. I say long term, but it will be different for every individual; some people take six months, some people may be two years to get to where they need to be to be successful.”
It’s that kind of understanding and compassion that Thompson possesses from the outset that will likely make VNV successful. The group is seeking people who want to make wholesale changes in their lives and who will take classes such as welding and automotive that VNV is aiming to offer. Thompson says that one thing they will not require from people who stay at their tiny houses is a religious commitment. Thompson says they are still working on purchasing a site and raising money.
“It will depend on how much instraucture is needed whether we will have to build a community building or one existing. The best estimate has been anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million. We’re looking at space that will be able to build on and keep growing and growing and adding more space for more people.”
Vita Nova is Italian for “new life,” and Thompson and the people of Vita Nova Village say that it was the perfect name for their organization because that is what they are seeking. To give Southwest Missouri’s homeless population a new life.
Kristen Radaker Sheafer has had a common thought and experience when they come into contact with government on nearly any level. It’s not made for people like me.
Her background as a business owner in Joplin and navigating city, county, and state requirements provided a crash course on what’s need and how much it cost when she and her husband opened their bakery six years ago.
Her message to possible voters is, I’m one of you, and together we can change how the government works for us.
Billy Long (R) has been the 7th Congressional Districts Representative for 12 years; Kristen says that Long rarely visits Joplin or much of southwest Missouri, and she is running on being accessible.
“I am here on the ground every single day in this District, and so I see those needs, I hear about them. I want to take that to Washington and try to convince other people that this District needs to be looked at as its own unique thing. Not the Democratic agenda from the west coast or the Republican agenda from rural areas.”
Kristen is running as a Democrat but, in her words she, “speaks fluent Republican,” having grown up in Oklahoma and attended John Brown University, a small private Christian college in Arkansas near the Oklahoma border. She isn’t for political labels but rather represents a generation of candidates about half the age of 7th District Congressman Billy Long, who is 66.
With an education in Graphic Marketing and Web Design, she says that she respects the wisdom of older generations but that members of Congress need to have a background in how technology works.
“But you may have to balance that with younger people who may have not ever done this before because there are ideas are going to be new and fresh, and things have evolved in the past in the last year, the last five years, the last ten years and things just keep evolving and if you’ve dug in.”
Having survived the pandemic and now running a business during this inflationary period, Kristen can’t dig in anywhere. The sands of running a company continue to churn, and this experience has provided ground to run for Congress in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1958 and has never elected women.
Regardless, Kristen is tired of the status quo in the 7th and knows that if she runs a bright blue campaign that she’ll have little success in August.
“It doesn’t matter if I was the most progressive Democrat there was; it doesn’t matter if I can’t get anything done and make progress, then what good is it?”
Kristen says that she has good friends on both sides of the political aisles and isn’t running to get viewpoint rubber-stamped by running for Congress. She wants the 7th to be able to move forward, away from the partisan attacks and politics that Billy Long has come to personify.
If elected, the economy and doing what she can to help fellow business owners and residents of the 7th would be the first thing on Kristen’s agenda. She doesn’t view the overall health of the U.S. or southwest Missouri’s economy or high prices on one presidential administration or another; she views it as a global issue.
“It’s not going to help if we say, that’s the fault of the Biden Administration, or it’s the rollover effect of the Trump Administration, like who cares whose fault it is, we need to fix it. And it’s going to take, maybe, some creative solutions that have not typically been thought of in Washington as a way to fix something. But I think the American people are strong and resilient but also have great ideas.”
Kristen Radaker Sheafer is not an ideologue; she is a pragmatist looking to make a difference in Missouri’s 7th Congressional District. A district she knows well, though she thinks it could work better under her leadership in Washington D.C.