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Homeless Pitch Tents in Central Springfield Parking Lot, Igniting Debate

Brittany Bombard Homeless Tents
Brittany Bombard, 20, has tried the homeless shelters in Springfield, but says she either doesn't qualify, or they can't guarantee a bed. She aspires to be a criminal investigator and is working on her GED. (Photo credit: Jennifer Moore, KSMU)

Reverend Larry Rice, who runs the Veterans Coming Home Center on North Jefferson, has set up a row of large camping tents in the center’s parking lot. He says this will be the temporary location for the outdoor homeless shelter until either the City of Springfield approves a one-acre permanent plot, or voters do.

On Thursday, Rice handed out copies of an initiative petition he’s gathering signatures on so that the matter can go to a city vote. That vote would be over whether to set aside land for a homeless community to stay until they can locate permanent housing.

“Now, some people might say, ‘They’re setting up winter shelters.[ If] it gets below 14 degrees, they can go and stay there. Why are they determined to try to stay in a tent?’ A tent is the closest thing a person has to a home.  I have a gentleman here—this man had a couple of houses. He lost it. Another man was a few months short of being a psychiatrist…but they had a home. This is a home,” Rice said.

Surrounded by about two dozen homeless men and women, Rice told local journalists that he’s trying to follow the example of Jesus Christ by helping those in need. He’s head of the New Life Evangelistic Center, based in St. Louis.

One of the homeless women there was 20-year-old Brittany Bombard, who says her dad asked her to leave when she didn’t get along with his new wife. Bombard supports the idea of an acre of land for the homeless community.  She stayed in one of these tents last night, although this wasn’t her first choice.

“The Missouri Hotel is for married women with kids, or single women with kids. And Safe to Sleep -- they only have six beds and you’re not guaranteed a bed. Basically, here, I’m guaranteed a place to put my head down and not have to worry about where I’m putting my head down at night,” Bombard said.

She’s walking to GED classes five days a week on Commercial Street, with a limp…she’s nursing a brown recluse spider bite on her knee.

The move to allow people to spend the night here now has raised concerns of Central High School administrators.  The high school is a stone’s throw away from the tents.

In an email to Central parents and staff Wednesday afternoon, principal Rod Snodgrass assured parents that his staff would be taking, quote, “extra measures to ensure the safety of students and staff.” – end quote.

The City of Springfield has already issued Rice a Notice of Violation.  Chris Straw, director of Springfield’s Building Development Services, says the site is in a General Retail Zoning District.

“The use as a campground and the use of a recreational vehicle park are not identified as permitted uses, therefore, they are illegal,” said Straw.

He said the city will take action to correct that violation, however he would not specify what action that would be.

Late Thursday afternoon, the City of Springfield issued a statement on its efforts to provide shelter for the homeless.  That statement, in part, read:

"On October 17, 2011, the Springfield City Council adopted a resolution extending a declaration of economic and housing access calamity, which allows churches to shelter the homeless regardless of the zoning district of the church.  Two churches now have shelters open for individuals. Safe to Sleep–Women’s Overnight Shelter provides shelter for up to 12 women each night in apartments provided by The Kitchen. East Sunshine Church of Christ is sheltering single men any night the temperature is 32 degrees or below. East Sunshine has a maximum capacity of 49, and during the winter of 2010-2011 averaged over 40 men each night."

The statement also said the city is sheltering the homeless in existing shelters like The Kitchen, Family Violence Center and the Salvation Army, as well as hotels and churches.  Some families are also being accommodated in hotels in donated or reduced-rate rooms, the statement said.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.