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Going Public: United Way Working with Area Organizations to Tackle Homelessness During Winter Months

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United Way of Southeast Missouri

Dan Woods recently sat down with Elizabeth Shelton, Executive Director of the United Way of Southeast Missouri, to talk about their efforts to find shelter for the homeless in Cape Girardeau County this winter.

Woods: We're into the colder temperatures sort of season now and that brings up an issue that's prevalent in our area and that's a place for the homeless to go. Let's talk about that and what needs there are.

Shelton: Thank you. I am part of numerous organizations that have been working hard to tackle this and actually we've been trying for years to find a solution because as I'm sure you know, there is no homeless shelter in Cape Girardeau in Cape County.

And so we have been working to try to find solutions and one that we've looked at is working with the Salvation Army. They have recently renovated their gymnasium and so they have a wonderful space there now they have a kitchen there. And they have been talking to their headquarters to find out what would need to happen for them to be able to do that. And the first thing was to have support of the community and so we do have numerous organizations that are behind that and also to have volunteers who would be willing to be there because the Salvation Army, like United Way like the KRCU staff — there were very few people working there. And so they depend on volunteers, and so that we had volunteer safe from harm training in October that 30 people attended. And we're very excited about moving forward in the next steps, but there really are a lot of things that need to be put into place before there can be a surefire plan.

Woods: One of the things I talked to you about before we went on the air was just the numbers — do we do we have a sense of how many people don't have a place to go when the weather turns cold?

Shelton: We would guesstimate that there are anywhere from 15 to 45 or 50, who might come to a facility if it existed and they knew about it.

Woods: And there could be even more if there were a place to go that we may not even know about, right?

Shelton: Right.

Woods: Define homelessness. What does that mean being homeless?

Shelton: I'm so glad you asked that because it's something that a lot of people don't understand, especially people who aren't in that community and don't work with that population.

When we say homeless, some people prefer to use the term unsheltered because it doesn't mean that you don't have a home it may not even mean that you don't have a home that you can go to at some point. But it means at that point in time you do not have shelter, and it could be because you are a student, whether a college student or even younger who doesn't feel safe going home. Maybe something's happening in your home environment that you prefer not to go home, so you prefer not to be sheltered. A lot of students, the estimation is up to 100 students, are without a permanent shelter and are couch-surfing and are staying with friends are sleeping in their car. I know of at least one SEMO student who has done that. Also, it can also be domestic violence related, it could be that someone doesn't want to be at home because they're dealing with some kind of situation like that.

Woods: So before we run out of time, if folks who want to volunteer or want to help or want to learn more, what do they need to do?

Shelton: We will have information about homelessness on our website. November 12-20, 2022 is National Homeless and Hunger Awareness Week. And many other organizations in the community are trying to raise awareness and raise funds quite frankly — all of us are trying to find solutions.

United Way of SEMO.org has a volunteer page where we'll be putting volunteer opportunities. Food, donations, canned food, not home prepared food are always appreciated at any of our food pantries and the Salvation Army. And we really hope that some of our churches might be able to open up for the extreme weather emergency overnight situations.

Like I said, we're working with the Salvation Army but we may not get everything put in place. We need our churches to step up or any facility that would be willing to open their doors and have trained volunteers come in and help house people during some of this horrific weather that we get here in Missouri.

Dan is a 1994 graduate of Southeast Missouri State University. He majored in radio and minored in political science. He spent three of his four years at Southeast working as a student announcer at KRCU – the beginning of his radio career.
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