Every town in Northeast Missouri has a park bench, a potential home for homelessness.

You probably don't know his name, but he could be sleeping on the park bench outside of your business, or in your community park.

Every town in Northeast Missouri has a park bench, a potential home for homelessness.

You probably don't know his name, but he could be sleeping on the park bench outside of your business, or in your community park.

He is the man around town pushing a wheelchair of possessions.

His beard is long and frizzy. His shirt doesn't cover his big belly. His hygiene is nowhere near healthy.

Leon Askew is part of a population in Hannibal, leaving a lot of authority figures and community assistance leaders with questions that need answers.

Askew is part of Hannibal's homeless population.

"I went to seventh grade, got kicked out, told me never to come back," Askew said of his young school days. "Went back for 10th grade, stayed a couple weeks and got out of there."

From then on his life, as he struggles to describe it, has been like a rollercoaster with very few high points and deep slopes that get deeper and deeper.

"I got ran over by a car, can't find an attorney to make my case," he claims. "If I got to California – is where I want to go – I'm just over here temporarily. I can get places quick. I could get me a house or apartment. I'm pretty smart. I ain't stupid."

Askew said he has spent time in prison. The first time was for attempted robbery and the second time was for marijuana possession. That sentence, he said, included time at a state hospital for being incompetent.

Askew's story may be unique. It may not be. But no matter the road taken, many locations across the United States a population now lives life on the streets. And it leaves leaders many northern Missouri communities wondering what to do next.

"That's the number one question that everyone's concerned about in dealing with this," said David Dexheimer, executive director of Douglass Community Services in Hannibal. "We're not the only city that's battling it. All over the country, there's cities that deal with it much worse than we are."

Jason Benson operates The SALT Center in Chillicothe, and has more insight into the homeless situation than most because he was once homeless. SALT stands for Simply Achieving Life's Triumphs, and the center offers homeless individuals a place to stay and food to eat. Local businesses and organizations sponsor beds for those staying in the facility, while the largest portion of funding comes through local foundations.

"We have never been empty nor have we been at capacity," Benson said of the center which opened in 2010, averaging seven new clients a month.

"The men and women and families who occupy our place, are wonderful people," Benson said. "Most do not have mental health or drug and alcohol issues, and some have college degrees."

While not every community in northern Missouri faces a problem with a visible homeless population, there is an increasing number of individuals needing assistance with food, or money to pay utilities. And where government assistance ends, there are many organizations and volunteer-driven entities that step up to help community members in need.

Macon focuses its attention on making sure the children of the community have nourishment, regardless of their parents' ability to provide sustenance.

Macon's Food 4 Kids program began in 2007.

"One day at preschool I had a first-hand experience seeing a hungry child," Becky Belt, coordinator for Macon's Food 4 Kids, said.  "We couldn't fill him up on apple slices at snack time."  

She contacted her minister for help.

"God clearly had a hand in getting this project going in Macon. I began asking friends and acquaintances that I knew went to different churches, 'Do you think your church would want to help one day a week to serve lunches?' Each person that I talked to readily agreed that they thought their church could help with it. I made a call to The Food Bank and also talked to the school lunch coordinator about using the kitchen at school. It all just fell into place and continues to operate without any big obstacles and many, many added blessings. We serve around 70 kids each day."

Based upon the concept that no person should have to go without a shower, food and a bed, a movement is under way in Kirksville to establish a free-standing shelter. The transitional shelter would provide not only the basic necessities, but housing as well as personal development, be it job hunting assistance, life-skills education or training.

"Our intention is not to provide long-term free anything," said Sally Carter, one of the organizers of New Day Community Outreach Services. "All of it involves work equity, even that one night, there would be chores to do."

The group's first goal would be to establish an emergency-type shelter for one- or two-night stays.

Harvest House in Boonville may see 20 people come through its doors during the course of a month.

"We have people come that are going through divorce or having trouble meeting bills, and then we have people that are truly homeless, - street people," said Heidi Burnett, Harvest House director.

Three or four referrals per month come from the Boonville police.

"Unless trespassing is involved, there's not anything preventing people from sleeping underneath a bridge or outdoors," said Bobby Welliver, Boonville police chief. "Some of the people we refer to the shelter are just passing through town and are dealing with a broken-down vehicle. When we get someone who is truly homeless, we'll bring them in, see if they need medical attention and run them to make sure they're not wanted. Then we call the Harvest House."

"There are many people who choose to be homeless. Others are put in that position," Burnett said.

The Brookfield Ministries offers utility assistance, housing, medical and gas vouchers. The latest numbers show that an average 1,088 individuals helped annually via the food pantry, a number that has remained fairly constant during the past three years.

Moberly, as home to the Moberly Correctional Center, has unique challenges, as families of inmates often move to the community in order to have access to their loved ones. Once there, some families stay, even when the inmates are released. A core group of volunteers, including educators, business men and women, senior citizens and retirees lend their helping hands in any way they can.

The Help Center in Mexico helps an average of 1,425 people a month with just food. The Center also operates a store that sells clothing and household items.

"Our community has an abundance of great agencies that help individuals in need," said Help Center Director Kaylie Nowlin.

But at the same time, she is brutally honest regarding help available for those needing shelter.

"Unfortunately, Mexico is not the place to be if you're homeless, because we currently have nothing in place that addresses the problem."

In Hannibal, as well as the rest of northern Missouri, communities struggle over how to help the homeless, while at the same time protecting the citizens they are paid to protect. Liability issues are a concern for communities both small and large.

On June 13, the Hannibal Police Department hosted city leaders and local group representatives to discuss the local homeless issue. Afterwards, Police Chief Lyndell Davis said he wants to "avoid some of the pitfalls or mistakes other communities have made throughout the country that in some cases lead to litigation and ultimately no improvement in the situation for all those involved."


Information for this story was provided by the newsrooms at the Hannibal Courier-Post, Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, Macon Chronicle-Herald, Kirksville Daily Express, Boonville Daily News, Linn County Leader, Moberly Monitor-Index and Mexico Ledger.