An unsheltered man's hands and shoes. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

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One guy’s waiting nervously by the front door for his buddy. Fr. Ray says it’s best to keep the front door locked. Not many guests walk in after supper. They have to knock loudly. Will his friend make it? He was not wearing shoes. It’s well below freezing now.

Still every hour, on the hour, till 10 p.m. dudes line up for a smoke break. The Sacred Heart Parish shelter offers 25 beds max. Men only. Volunteers make supper. Limited heat in the sleeping area, but the whole parish hall stays warm. By midnight it smells a bit like a turkey confinement house. But no gobbling, just a chorus of snores.

I like volunteering at Sacred Heart better than the big shelter at Asbury Methodist Church, which welcomes couples, men and/or women and their dogs. They can handle about 40 folks, with a dozen cages for the pooches. Maybe half sleep with their humans. Never heard any barking or fighting. Everyone’s tired and cold.

“I can’t stand the Ozarks or Springfield,” has been the only negative comment I’ve heard in my half-dozen nights volunteering this winter. “I’m from Utah, desert country. Cold here goes into your bones, out there it’s more dry. It warms up when the sun comes out. We have more sun, that’s for sure!”

One rapper at Sacred Heart spent most of the night in the parish bathroom singing and dancing in tune with his cell phone. He eventually started sweating and took off his shirt to keep rapping — half naked, wildly tattooed, warbling without shoes. Had to ask him, “Turn it down. Guys trying to sleep.” At Asbury, it feels restless most of the night. Couples squirm constantly while sharing a cot.

Around 5 a.m., most guests at the shelter at Asbury Methodist Church are still asleep. They will be roused at 6 for breakfast before moving to buses at 7 a.m. (Photo: submitted)

There’s usually a staff person to help the overnight volunteer. He’s paid to stay up all night, handle emergency calls, get coffee going around 5 or so, then get everyone ready for the bus. That includes pets in cages to go to their next destination.

“One thing I’ve learned,” said Big John, the staff guy at Asbury the other night, “If I can learn one or two names on each shift, that makes a big difference. That’s the only thing many of these folks have left. They’ve lost not only homes, but most anything personal. The only thing many may have left is their name.”

That guy walking from downtown never made it. Don’t know what happened. His friend finally crashed. My shift at Sacred Heart ended at 1 a.m., just as a 33-year-old guy signed himself out. “I’ve been smoking cigarettes since I was 14. I need my nicotine.”

As I headed home to cuddle with Cathy, I saw him walk into Washington Park to huddle up on a bench. Smoke or frost enveloped his head. He can’t come back in. No breakfast. Rules are rules. But the next night starts it all over again. Supper at 6, last smoke at 10, wake up at 6 for the bus at 7.

I wanted to ask his name. To know him. He could be my son, a good-looking man, but really still a kid. But he’s gone now. Drifted into winter’s night.

The local sheriff raided three of the homeless camps on January 11. They occupied private or government property, often with big messes left scattered about. It was a warm day; the next day was freezing rain.

Homeless folks lost clothes and their makeshift shelters, apparently with little or no notice to vacate. A few reportedly came into Springfield’s overnight shelters just wearing shorts as their stuff was consigned to the landfill.

Visit Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott’s Facebook page to see a lively discussion of this issue.

For those living near downtown, it’s not hard to find detritus from the homeless around town, especially near streams and highways or railroad right-of-ways. Winter always highlights this problem that foliage hides.

Bikes and belongings are huddled near the entrance to the shelter at Asbury Methodist Church. (Photo: submitted)

Why would any rational person subject him or herself to volunteer at this sheltered sideshow of struggling humanity on a shivery winter night?

Perhaps I see myself in this nameless crowd. I was blessed with many advantages, thanks to a stable family and home, but have tussled in my own way with diverse issues. It’s always inspiring to keep in touch with basic roots and offer a helping hand.

In a practical sense, being up awake most of the night bumps me out of my complacent comfort zone. Helping mop up spills, making coffee, stacking bedding recalls college or work on late-night projects.

Estimates are that as many as 60 percent of Americans are at risk of homelessness based on percentage of income that goes to their rent. While some folks I have met act a little whacked out or demented, none were dangerous or violent. Some hold jobs but can’t make enough for rent. Most seem like decent Americans struggling and just down on their luck.

Morning comes early in the shelter. Are we ready with enough coffee and oatmeal? Bus will be here in 40 minutes. Is my act together?

Find more information about how to volunteer or support the crisis cold weather shelter program on the Community Partnership of the Ozarks website. You can also email the program coordinator Lisa Landrigan at

Alex T. Primm

Alex T. Primm, of Springfield, is a freelance oral historian and author of “Ozark Voices: Oral Histories from the Heartland” (McFarland and Co., 2022) about his 40-year career in public history. He was a general assignment reporter at the late Rolla Daily News and curator at the Ozark Agriculture Museum at Maramec Spring Park, St. James. Email: More by Alex T. Primm