By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
WARRENSBURG — Gary is an oddball. He freely admits it. He also knows that the deck is stacked against oddballs like him, even if they did risk their lives in combat.
An Army veteran of “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan, Gary said he bankrupted himself caring for his dying mother.
He was prepared to spend the winter in a tent pitched in woods behind a Warrensburg apartment complex, eating with food stamps and wrapping himself in three blankets to keep from freezing as he slept.
But he didn’t have to.
On Dec. 19, two days before winter began and six days before Christmas, a coalition of Johnson County, Mo., churches and social agencies — including Sacred Heart Parish and Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph — opened a five-bedroom home just south of Warrenburg’s courthouse square and north of the University of Central Missouri campus as the city’s only homeless shelter.
It isn’t the Ritz, but it is home at least for now, said Gary.
“I have family here,” he said of the other 18 people who share the home with him, all of whom would be sleeping outside or in a car if they owned one.
“We’ve become family because we share this place,” he said. “This has become our place.”
Gary also knows he and the other adults at the shelter are homeless because of their own decisions.
“All the adults have put themselves here,” he said. “But the kids didn’t.”
The shelter has a capacity for 22 people, if the profile is right. There are three bedrooms upstairs for families with children. There are two bedrooms on the main floor for single women. Single men sleep in the basement, which, Gary said, is a lot better than sleeping outside during a Missouri winter.
When the city’s only shelter closed in June, the coalition calling itself Johnson County Cares sprang into both formation and action.
Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph pledged $5,000 — but with a catch. The community had to match it.
The Rev. Joel Kurz, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, said the city’s ministerial alliance and other social service agencies put together a benefit concert on Halloween featuring Christian singer-songwriter Bob Bennett that nearly raised the entire $5,000 match.
The rest came quickly through pass-the-hat donations from the community, said Erica Collins, chair of the Johnson County Cares advisory board.
“It’s just a bunch of wonderful folks in this community coming together,” said Collins.
That’s the way things get done in Warrensburg, Rev. Kurz said.
“We had a great outpouring of support throughout the community,” he said. “We have lots of agencies doing good things, but we also have groups saying, ‘Let’s cooperate to close the gaps we have.’”
Catholic Charities was eager to join that collaboration, particularly when it comes to issues of homelessness, said Heather Fitzcharles-Keller, director of Charities’ Heart of America office in Warrensburg.
And helping to open a shelter is only part of the plan, she said. Charities will use its expertise to tap into federal and state grants and resources to provide services that will move people from homelessness back into productive lives, she said.
“We will be looking into transitional housing and other services to get them there,” Fitzcharles-Keller said.
Meanwhile, an army of volunteers from throughout the community converged on the shelter for a Jan. 19 open house to marvel at what had been accomplished in so little time, and of the small army of volunteers who keep the place going.
For some, like Alicia Dannenberg, the issue of homelessness is deeply personal. A close family member found herself and her children homeless after her divorce from an alcoholic husband, and the money she earned from a job just above minimum wage unable to keep up the mortgage payments or save money for rent and deposit to move.
“It can happen to anybody,” Dannenberg said. “Extended family has to help, and in Warrensburg, the extended family is the community.”
Donna Warden, a member of Sacred Heart Parish, and Kay Reser, a member of the Community of Christ, stood side by side dispensing punch and cookies at the open house.
“This has definitely been a group effort, not just one church,” said Warden. “It’s the whole community coming together. We were moving families in the day this opened.”
Reser said she became involved because she knows what “home” means.
“It’s hard to see someone without a home — a place to sleep, or a place to gather around a table to eat,” she said. “I knew that as a community, we had to do something. It was unacceptable.”
Homelessness can also be hidden easily in a college town like Warrensburg, said Breane Sandoval, president of the Social Work Students at the University of Central Missouri.
In Warrensburg, she said, you won’t see the stereotypical homeless person holding a makeshift cardboard sign on a street corner.
“They blend in a lot more in a college town,” she said. “If they have a backpack on and are carrying everything they own in it, they look like students.”
Sandoval and other volunteers from the campus and the community will be helping to provide Warrensburg’s first census of the homeless in years.
In pairs, volunteers will fan out through the community between midnight Jan. 23 and midnight Jan. 24 actively searching for areas in which the homeless might camp. If there is room at the shelter, they will invite them there. If not, they will leave them clothes and blankets.
Volunteer Suzy Latare said that social service agencies such as food pantries that serve the poor will also be asking their clients if they are homeless.
That information will help Johnson County Cares access state and federal aid.
“It is important to have an accurate count as possible,” Latare said. “This will establish a baseline, and we will have a better sense of how many people have a need for services for homelessness.”
Gary said he is happier at the shelter with people than alone in the woods. But hope, he said, is a luxury he can’t yet give himself.
“Hope isn’t a thing I feel much of,” he said. “I live everyday knowing I could die at any moment. That’s a habit I got in Afghanistan. So I live every day trying to do good. That gives me peace.”