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WENTZVILLE, Mo. — It was 2:00 p.m., and all Jesus Garcia had eaten that day was a tiny packet of sauce from a fast food restaurant.
Garcia, originally from California, moved to the Wentzville area — just beyond the fringes of St. Louis’ exurbs — to begin a new life after separating from his wife. He enrolled in culinary school before the move, but didn’t realize just how far the school was from St. Louis, where he had planned to live. He bought a used car with the little money he had left and drove out of the city and out west through the suburbs, to try to find a place to live near where he would begin his studies.
That was two years ago. Ever since, Garcia has been jumping from job to job, mostly living out of his car and spending nights in its back seat parked in a Walmart parking lot. He is still enrolled in culinary school part time a few nights a week, but feels malnourished and frequently “grazes,” as he calls it, on packets of sauce and other small food items.
Garcia’s story is typical of the homeless in outlying and rural communities, where skyscrapers are replaced with forests and fields, interstates and outer roads take the place of subway stations, and a gap in resources and services leaves rural homeless like him with dramatically fewer options than those in urban areas.
Nowhere to turn
Wentzville, Missouri, and the surrounding tri-county area made up of St. Charles, Lincoln, and Warren counties — where Garcia lives, works, and studies – is not quite rural, but it rests just beyond the fringes of St. Louis’ urban sprawl where new subdivisions start to mix with corn fields that fade into the countryside.
One of the first things Garcia found about the area, he said, was there was nowhere for him to turn to help get started. He approached homeless shelters, including one operated by the Salvation Army, only to find that they all closed their doors to him. Within all three counties, there is still not one permanent homeless shelter open to single men. Those few that are operating are only open to women, children, and families.
“I couldn’t fathom why there wasn’t a men's shelter,” Garcia said. “I just felt like they were trying to kick me out of town.”
He said that those at the shelters told him he should go to St. Louis to find help. The only way he could get a place to stay in the tri-county area was if he was recovering from alcohol or drug addiction, which was not the case.
“And that’s why I live in my car,” he said. “Because I’m clean.”
Enter Paul Kruse, of Lake St. Louis, Mo., in St. Charles County, who has been trying to help the homeless in this region for the past nine years through his ministry First Step Back Home. Churches, individuals, and even other organizations working with the homeless give out Kruse’s phone number to those seeking help. He estimates he gets 100 calls a week from people in the area. People also drift in from other small towns, looking for a place to stay, some food, and help finding a job.
And that’s what he does as he calls the ever-growing list of phone numbers written down in his well-worn notebook. Relying entirely on donations, Kruse will pay for nights at local motels when the shelters are full or turn away individuals like Garcia. He’ll also buy prepaid cell phones to help people find jobs, give them bags of food and fresh underwear and socks, and even provide bicycles to get around town.
“It’s never-ending,” he said as he let yet another phone call go to his voicemail. There’s not enough time and money to help every single person who calls him each day.
Every now and then Garcia is one of those people calling, and from time to time Kruse gives him a hand. After Garcia’s most recent stint sleeping in his car, Kruse bought him a week’s worth of rooms at a low-cost motel in Wentzville, a tank of gas, some frozen dinners, reactivated his prepaid cell phone, and gave him a sandwich once he found out all Garcia had eaten that day was that packet of sauce. “Thank you, Paul,” Garcia said when Kruse handed him his motel room key. Cheap motels he can rarely afford are the closest things Garcia has found to a homeless shelter in Warren County.
But Kruse doesn’t take the credit — he's doing God’s work, he said. That same day, he bought rooms for a couple and their 15-year-old son from a small town in Lincoln County, and a homeless woman whose friend nearly died of a drug overdose the previous night, none of whom he had ever met before. As he walked through the halls of the motel, he was greeted by others he had helped who had since found jobs and were paying their own bills.
He also visited a woman, who chose not to be named, and her six young children who, with her husband, have been in and out of motels for two years. The eight of them were staying in a standard motel room with two beds, one bathroom, and an old window unit as an air conditioner.
Her children's cheeks were rosy with heat rash and bed bug bites. Trash bags were piled in the hallway. The family is afraid to leave their room at night, as there have been violent, drunken incidents within the building.
Another, a 17-year-old woman who goes by the name Stormy, is living in the motel with her boyfriend after leaving the town of Troy, Mo. At first the high school dropout, who said her adoptive parents had kicked her out of their house, stayed with friends.
“But eventually I ran out of people who would take me in,” she said. She slept in parks and lived on the streets before arriving in Wentzville.
“The whole world is upside down,” Kruse said. “People are just ignoring the pain and suffering that is going on.”
Nine years ago, Kruse never thought he would be doing this kind of work. He was starting a ministry at a truck stop in Foristell, Mo., and was having trouble building attendance. Over time he realized there was a regular group of people hanging around the stop, and that they were living in the woods behind the building along Interstate 70. In one day he charged $1,000 to get them all motel rooms for the night.
“My wife looked at the statement and asked, ‘How are you going to pay for this?’” He recalled with a chuckle. First Step Back Home was born.
Kruse’s ministry was run out of his home to keep costs low until a few months ago when an area church let him move into their basement office space, which he would like to turn into a shelter. In the beginning he paid all the expenses out of his own pocket, but over time money started coming in the mail. He gets no help from any government agency, only individuals who want to help out and the occasional grant.
“All the agencies are overwhelmed, understaffed, and underfunded,” Kruse said. “I think there’s enough money, but there’s just not good management.”
Ron Estep, the director of the Lake Area Helping Hands homeless shelter in Camdenton, Mo., shares a similar sentiment. The shelter had its government funding pulled because after the 2000 census it was determined, in part, that the county’s median income was too high for the shelter to qualify for aid. Estep suspects this is due to the large number of well-off retirees at the Lake of the Ozarks, a popular resort destination, which skewed the numbers.
“They’re failing to look at the big picture,” he said.
Nearly 12 percent of the people in Camden County live below the poverty line. The Lake Area Helping Hands shelter in Camdenton, a town just shy of 4,000 people in a county of almost 44,000, is the only homeless shelter in the surrounding five counties.
“There are a lot of counties that don’t even have one,” Estep said. “They don’t have a shelter because they don’t feel like they need one.”
However, the number of calls his shelter gets each day tells a different story. He has to turn away people daily, and gets calls coming in even from other parts of the country. Estep said the shelter could get enough people to fill the entire building and set up a small tent city in the parking lot, but that would likely violate local or state laws.
Individuals like Kruse and Estep can’t help every person that calls them each day, and with nearly no other emergency resources available, the rural homeless don’t have many options. Even if they could easily get to the shelters in the cities, most don’t want to go.
Kruse said he has clients who have gone to the shelters in St. Louis, and have come back saying they would rather live in the woods. One man said he would rather kill himself than have to stay in those shelters another night. There was one client who returned to Warren County after being stabbed at a shelter in St. Louis.
“I also hear people say, ‘I don’t want to go there, because [those shelters] are dangerous,’” Estep said.
A common last resort is to simply live in the woods.
These days, the camps behind the truck stop in Foristell, where Kruse first found those men living in the woods, have largely been cleared out. But a short walk through the thickets and trees will turn up old blankets, tarps, and fire pits, some of which look to be recently used.
Devery Mills, who works with the homeless in and around Springfield, Mo., routinely visits with several individuals who are living in a similar situation. She did not disclose their names or where they live, but said they have tents set up along a creek bed in southwest Missouri.
“They have skills enough to hide themselves by a creek, lake, [etc.],” Mills said.
But even with those survival skills, the elements can be dangerous, if not life-threatening. With fewer, if any, cooling shelters out in the country, many rural homeless are left to bear the brunt of Missouri’s oppressive, humid, summer heat.
Just days ago, Mills found one of the men she helps had been overcome by temperatures that were creeping into the 90s, and rising. She recognized his life could be in danger, but he refused to go to the hospital. She let him cool down in her car and gave him Gatorade and water before he carried on with his day.
“Just to help them stay alive,” Mills said, “you do what have to do.”
“And you think about what our temperatures were like last winter,” she added. “Below zero temperatures, with windchills. And trying to live in a tent? Covered in snow? It’s just awful.”
Beyond the elements, having their camps torn down by the police is a constant worry for these individuals, Mills said, which is why she is so protective of their names and locations. Even though they’re out in the wilderness, these types of camps are generally illegal and are often uprooted when discovered by local police or municipal governments.