Missouri has a high rate of homelessness but the homeless are human

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COLUMBIA - Missouri continues to fight high rates of homelessness, but one man reminds people that the homeless are still human. 

"I didn't consider myself a bad person...just circumstances happened to work out the way they did," said Scott Gardner, a formerly homeless veteran.

Divorce, depression and losing his job are circumstances that caused Gardner to be homeless.

As of January 2017, Missouri's total homeless population is 6,037 people according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15 percent of the people living in Boone County are in poverty. This is higher than the county's 2018 poverty rate of 14 percent.

Megan Sievers, the development director at  a Columbia nonprofit veteran organization and shelter called Welcome Home, said homelessness can mean many things.

"It really does depend on who you talk to: different agencies, organizations, different governments. For some, it is somebody who is sleeping out on the streets, under a bridge or in their car. For some it's those who don't have their own housing, meaning maybe they're couch surfing or staying with certain family members before bouncing to another family member's place," Sievers said.

Welcome Home has its own definition of homelessness. 

"For us, homelessness means somebody who doesn't have a place of their own to call theirs. What we strive to do is welcome them in here and welcome them in our doors to have a place for them to call home temporarily," Sievers said. 

Gardner said negative stereotypes about homelessness make people think the homeless are bad people or did bad things. 

"If I wouldn't have lost my job, I don't think I would've been homeless," Gardner said. 

A friend referred Gardner to Welcome Home. This is where he met Sievers.

Sievers said people need to think about their ideas of homelessness.

"When people think homeless, they think of the pan-handeler down the street, truly. The person that you drive by on an afternoon, holding a sign and a jar asking for money that you try not to make eye-contact with because it's uncomfortable not to give them money, but you really don't want to put yourself out there," Sievers said.

She also said some people blame the homeless for their situations.

"That's a stigma. There are people out there. They don't want to work. They don't care to work. They don't want to try to get better," said Sievers. 

Gardner admitted he, too, judged the homeless.

"A lot of us have not had to walk in those shoes. I wasn't going to change my view until I actually found myself in the situation" Gardner said.

After becoming homeless, Gardner realized it could happen to anyone.

"A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck. They may have a new car. They may have a nice home, but they may be two months away from no money," Gardner said.

Sievers said many factors can lead to homelessness.

"There are a lot of variables that lead to homelessness, and for every individual it's different just like every life is different and every outcome is different," Sievers said.

Sievers said those variables include: mental or physical disabilities, a lack of family or social network and not knowing the resources to get help.

"These are people who haven't landed well. We have to find these men and women," she said. 

The 2018 Missouri Poverty report says about 46 percent of homeless adults living in shelters have severe mental illness.

Since experiencing homelessness, Gardner said he has more empathy. 

"Because of my own issues with mental illness on top of the homelessness, I think that I became much more empathetic about the person who was in that situation. Before I judge them, let me listen to them," Gardner said.

If people want to help, Gardner said they should reach out to shelter directors like Sievers. 

Sievers said the community has a duty to help the homeless population and correct negative stigmas against homelessness. 

"We have a duty to make sure those stigmas are wiped to a point where our community embraces our homeless population," she said.

Gardner said he doesn't think money is always necessary.

"The people that dropped of some donuts and talked to us...that didn't take a lot. Their time...If somebody really wants to help, volunteer their time. It could change somebody's life," Gardner said. 

"Waving and smiling, sometimes that's all it takes...human to human just to say 'hey I see you'," Sievers said. 

Gardner said if people want to know other ways to help,they should contact homeless shelter directors. 

With the time, help and resources from Welcome Home, Gardner was able to find his own place. January 2019 began his second year in his home.