Lake of the Ozarks Homeless Youth Coalition talks facility, funding and sustainability.

Camdenton will be the initial focus for a proposed youth drop-in center and shelter, though teens from around the Lake of the Ozarks would be welcome to use the facility. Part of tentative plans for the facility include large passenger vans to transport teenage clients as needed.

With Camdenton schools reporting the highest number of homeless students in the tri-county region, a newly-formed youth homeless coalition decided to start assistance project in Camdenton, possibly serving as the model for additional youth centers and shelters in other main Camden and Miller county population centers such as Eldon, Lake Ozark and Osage Beach. 

Camdenton R-III Assistant Superintendent Dr. Julie Dill, the district’s homeless coordinator, reported at the October kick-off meeting of the coalition that approximately 446 students were considered homeless at the start of this school year — homeless as set out by the McKinney-Vento Act of 2001. Recognizing the impact of instability, trauma and significant stress on children’s development and long-term outcomes, McKinney-Vento defines homeless children and youth as those who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” 

Children who are sharing housing of others due to a loss of housing from an economic hardship; are living in motels, hotels or campgrounds due to a lack of alternative accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals or are awaiting foster-care placement are considered homeless. 

Many of the district’s homeless population are living “doubled up,” an estimated 60 to 70 percent, with multiple families residing under one roof that is often substandard housing. There is also a significant population of unaccompanied youth.

Other districts in the Lake area have previously reported, through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, smaller official numbers — more in the 30 to 50 range, but school officials themselves considered them vastly under-reported due to challenges in finding out about and confirming students as homeless. 

In October, Eldon School Homeless Coordinator Aaron Berendzen reported more than 30 were documented at his district so far this year, but stated the number was inaccurate. School officials meet with resistance from families to admit economic problems, especially homelessness as defined by McKinney-Venton, due to the social stigma of the label.

High rates of documented poverty in Lake area districts as well as anecdotal knowledge of local officials indicate that significant economic struggles for many families and for children.

The coalition met for the second time Nov. 5, 2018, at Kids Harbor in Osage Beach. The child advocacy non-profit has added the coalition to its umbrella of projects after it was initiated in October by Project Healthy Living. 

Also decided at the Nov. 5 meeting, the coalition will narrow its focus to serving 13 to 18 year olds, after previously discussing 13 to 21 year olds. 

Kids Harbor Executive Director Cara Gerdiman said discussion amongst coalition members indicated the previous age range was too wide of a gap between the needs of those school-age and those older.

The coalition has also begun reviewing and visiting potential properties for a drop-in center and are gathering cost estimates to begin the grant writing process as well.

A couple of properties were considered and rejected — one long-disused was potentially moldy and the other not the right for owner’s plans.

The Key Gathering Place on S. Business 5, formerly the Orion Center, is being developed by Bill and Peg Mundhausen as a community center. Bill attended the meeting to discuss how his building could fit into the coalition’s mission to serve homeless youth. Ultimately though, the vision for The Key Gathering Place is broader and more informal than the coalition was looking for.

Members want a safe place for kids to go in the evenings with free meals, safe showers and laundry facilities, then eventually a safe place to sleep. To accomplish that, the coalition would limit access to the facility, have trained supervisory staff and have formal rules to keep the facility safe and drug-free.

While The Key Gathering Place, partially open but undergoing remodeling, plans to be open in the evenings and open a soup kitchen, it wants to welcome all of the community on a more come-and-go basis.

The possibility of another Camdenton site was raised, and coalition members will be seeking more information on the building.

Funding, though, will be the biggest challenge to start-up.

Without an exact location and site-specific renovation budget, the exact amount is unclear, but up to $1 million was estimated for all start-up costs.

The Missouri Foundation for Health was discussed as a likely source for funds to purchase a facility and initiate services over a three to five year period. Coalition members were hopeful of local donations, monetary and in-kind, along with other smaller grants to renovate and outfit the facility.

Sustainability long-term was also a concern. Health care and evidence-based counseling services are also envisioned as part of the services at the youth center. Medicaid reimbursements were discussed as one source of ongoing funding.