In Plain Sight

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Josh has called the underbelly of a highway overpass his home on and off for the past four years.

Photos he took recently show what life looks like underneath the overpass. Sleeping bags, a few chairs and some tents provide refuge from the elements. His favorite photos include his "family" — homeless friends who share the space with him in St. Charles County

There's a certain level of freedom that comes with being homeless, Josh recently explained during a visit at Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, which provides social services to people in need in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties. "There's a detachment from responsibilities, other than your own actions," he explained. But it certainly isn't a life aspiration, he added. A series of bad decisions led him to the streets, and he ended up "taking a break" from life.

That time is over, he said, especially now that he has a serious girlfriend, Crystal, who also is homeless. They are motivating each other to find employment and eventually have a roof over their heads. Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service is helping them work on those goals.

Josh is one of nearly two dozen homeless people who visually documented their lives for "In Plain Sight," a photography art exhibit the care service will launch later this month at the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre. The project is to raise awareness of homelessness in the tri-county area.

In April, the care service distributed 100 disposable cameras to homeless people to capture everyday images of their typical living situations. About a quarter of the cameras were returned. Some of the images focused on the small details, such as the interior of a vehicle in which someone was living, a beloved pet or personal belongings.

Other images showed the broader scenes of homeless life, such as a tent community under a highway overpass, a person standing along a roadside with a help sign or scenes from life at a week-to-week budget motel.

The project also aims to gives homeless people a voice and impact change, said Pam Struckhoff, director of program services. A fundraiser dinner will be held in August, and will include an auction of the framed photos. (See related.)

Some of the photos that depict boxes or bags of personal belongings show the reality of homeless people who are "used to waiting for the next shoe to drop," Struckhoff said. "They're used to having so much coming at them. They're used to fending for themselves."

In our midst

Struckhoff shared the story of a man she met last summer at a gas station near Muegge Road and Highway 94. "He was sunburned and it was sweltering," she recalled. "I stopped one day and asked him some questions. I realized I had seen him before at an intersection that gets maybe 5,000 cars passing by every day." Turns out the man had been living on the streets for seven years. She helped him get food, and eventually the care service helped him find housing.

Homelessness in this area doesn't always seem as apparent, especially with booming commercial and residential development and population that isn't as dense compared to other parts of the St. Louis area.

The reality is that there are more than 800 homeless people living in the tri-county area, according to a 2015 homeless count by Community Council of St. Charles County. "Many of the photos we received were from Wapelhorst Park," Struckhoff said. "People don't think there are homeless there."

In 2016, Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service fulfilled a longtime goal and launched a Street Outreach program, focusing primarily on single men in need of housing. Federal funds distributed through the Missouri Housing Development Commission helped start the pilot program, which focuses on basic needs, case management, housing options and access to health care for homeless people in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties. The outreach has met more than 175 homeless people in the area since the beginning of the program.

"Our calls here at the care service have gone up, where we used to get maybe 20-25 calls monthly, we're getting double that now," Struckhoff said. "We believe the word is getting out, even though we've been here for 36 years. This program has really taken off."

The outreach team includes staff social workers as well as health care workers via a partnership with SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital-St. Charles. They patrol the community and find homeless people in expected places, such as near a Salvation Army soup kitchen, and some hidden sites such as woods or under highway overpasses.

Once the team identifies someone in need of help, they come to the care service to determine eligibility. The first effort is to find housing, but with an occupancy rate in the area of more than 96 percent, finding affordable housing for rent is a challenge, Struckhoff noted. Some of the most common reasons for homelessness are unemployment, underemployment (meaning less than 20 hours a week) or disabilities. Once a client is vetted to a landlord, the care service steps in and can pay the deposit, first and last month's rent and up to 12 months of rent in between. Every person they meet on the street is given food, basic items such as socks or toiletries and medical attention, if needed.

Clients also are referred to a social worker, and they meet twice a month to make sure the client has access to resources such as Medicaid, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), food stamps and Social Security. Clients who are job ready are assisted with job applications and other resources to help find employment. "So when we walk away, they are able to sustain themselves," Struckhoff said.

A blessing in disguise

Sharon has taken care of her granddaughter Mattie since she was four years old. The two had been living in Sharon's ex-husband's house in O'Fallon, paying rent directly to him. Turns out he wasn't paying on the house, and it went into foreclosure. Sharon and Mattie had three days to vacate.

They landed at a Budget Inn in Wentzville and have been there since January. They pay $345 a week to have a roof over their heads. The double-bed room has a small fridge, a microwave, a slow cooker and an electric skillet. Their clothes and other personal belongings remain packed in suitcases and baskets, lined along the walls of the room. They do their dishes in the bathroom sink and get by mostly eating hot dogs and popcorn, and anything else that is easy to prepare.

"I have to plan ahead if I want to make anything with meat, since the fridge and the cooler we have don't keep things cold enough," Sharon explained.

Sharon is on disability, and is trying to bring in some extra income by making stuffed teddy bears and assembling CD cases. She doesn't have a vehicle, making it hard for them to get out and find a place to live. She's tried working with a few landlords, but "they're just hee-hawing around," she said.

Sharon called Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service a few months ago seeking help. "I was at a point where I needed food and help so we don't get pulled out on the street," she said. "They were a blessing in disguise." Laura Steinhoff, a street outreach caseworker, makes regular visits, bringing food to them and checking on their needs.

Sharon said she wants people to know that there are circumstances beyond someone just making bad choices that can lead to homelessness. "The stereotype is hard," she said. "People think you have problems with drugs or alcohol or you're not working."

Just a few months before they had to vacate their house, Sharon met a man who was homeless around Thanksgiving. She made him some food and gave him a little cash so he could get something for himself. Even with as little as she had herself, "I hoped he'd have a decent dinner and some cash," she said. "It's awful when you see that." 

"In Plain Sight: Homelessness Exposed," a photography art exhibit will be on display from June 29-Aug. 19 at the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre, One St. Peters Centre Blvd. in St. Peters. Exhibit hours are 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays; and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.

The top 20 photos will be on display, and the public is invited to vote for the top three photos via online donation. The minumum donation is $3 per vote. Donations will benefit the homeless and near-homeless in the community. A web-based audio tour of the images also will be available at www.inplainsight.live.

Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service will announce the winners and auction the 20 framed photos at a dinner auction on Saturday, Aug. 19. Cost is $50 per person or tables of eight for $400. To RSVP, register at www.inplainsight.live; or contact Karen Grant at kgrant@jacares.org or (636) 441-1302, ext. 263.

Another selection of photos will be available for a traveling exhibit. To learn more about hosting the exhibit, contact Karen Grant. 

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