by Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – Right now is not “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” for many Missourians, especially thousands of young people, as homelessness and hunger sting a little harder during the holidays.
It’s a year-round problem, and a big one, according to Covenant House Missouri Executive Director, Sue Wagener. She recently appeared on “Missouri Viewpoints.”
“It’s a number that’s very difficult to really nail down. Our kids are transient in nature.”
Covenant House is in St. Louis but Wagener says that transient nature of the young people who are homeless brings them to her doors from all over the state and the Midwest. Other homeless shelters in Missouri deal with the same issue.
The reasons for a young person’s homelessness are as individual as the person. There could be substance abuse by the youth or by those in their former home.
Physical or sexual abuse are also common reasons a teen runs away permanently. The majority of the people shelters like Covenant House serve have been part of the foster care system at some point, so a stable home life is often not something they are used to.
Without a caring intervention, today’s homeless youths too often end up as tomorrow’s prisoners, prostitutes or chronically homeless.
Covenant House, and shelters like it, generally do an assessment of the immediate needs of the person who comes to them for help. Wagener says in addition to a roof over their heads, food in their stomach and maybe some medical attention, counseling and life skills training are offered.
“Our staff are often the ones saying ‘have you done your homework? How’s school going? How’s that job going? Let me help you budget your money.”
Even when progress is made when it comes to redirecting a young person from the streets to a life that’s functional, productive and part of mainstream society, the holiday season can set that back.
“They really have a hard time looking at what they don’t have from a family structure. They wish so bad that their family was somebody they could go back home to and have this warm, sit-by-the-fire roasting marshmallows kind of experience.”
The experiences so many of us took for granted.
When mass media highlights family gatherings, special gifts and overall family cheer this time of year, it often results in homeless youth “acting out”, according to Wagener. That could be in the form of violence, returns to alcohol or drug use or even suicide.
That’s why shelter staffs host Christmas celebrations and ask for gift donations. They can’t replace the original families but they can let the youth know someone cares.
Other Missourians who are struggling are less obvious. You may know them personally but have no idea that they struggle to put food on the table.
They are Missouri’s poor and even middle class hungry.
Scott Baker from the Missouri Food Banks Association says it involves everyone.
“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of Missourians who are impacted by food insecurity every week. When you’re talking about numbers on that scale, you’re talking about people across the spectrum economically, geographically, you name it. They are everywhere.
“Hunger is in every county in our state.”
Missouri has the fifth highest food insecurity rate in the nation.
“Food insecurity” means a person or family struggles financially to put three nutritious meals on the table every day.
Don’t assume your coworkers or neighbors in that nice house are doing just fine. Baker explains that even those who may have been donors to food banks before now sometimes need them to get by.
“We see prices for everything going up but wages really have not kept up. So, people are having to make some very difficult decisions. If they do have a job and they are making money, they’re having to decide between the rent and food or medicine and food.”
If you don’t know who that is in your town, it’s probably not your fault. Those in need of help with food often will not ask for it or will make an effort to hide their struggle out of embarrassment. That’s especially true in middle class neighborhoods.
The Missouri Food Bank Association is a network consisting of six food banks and about 1,500 partnering agencies throughout the state.
Through the network, around 100,000,000 pounds of food are collected and distributed to those in need every year.
That need remains consistent throughout the year but donations generally do not, according to Baker.
“Nearly half of the money that comes into a food bank comes in November and December.”
That’s, of course, when media outlets often promote holiday-themed food drives and local organizations get involved in similar efforts. That’s nothing to complain about for the food banks but it’s made the network learn how to be efficient and how to make the most out of each donation.
Every donation of canned food or non-perishable boxed food is put to good use. Monetary donations are put to even better use.
“Food banks can obtain up to about five meals for every dollar that’s donated.”
That’s because they are able to buy food at special rates due to bulk and, sometimes, food companies donate the food but the food banks still need to pay for shipping to get it.
There’s another way to help your neighbors through a food bank even if you don’t have extra money or food to donate. To keep expenses low and make sure the donations go to feeding Missourians, food banks rely on volunteers for much of the work that’s done. No matter what your skills are, the food bank can likely put them and your time to good use in helping others.
On the web:
Covenant House: www.CovenantHouseMO.org
Missouri Food Banks Association: www.FeedingMissouri.org