Food, clothing and a cherished book were all belongings that were doused with gasoline and torched at a homeless camp in Springfield in early February 2023. (Photo: submitted by Jack Pike)


Editor’s note: Paul Kincaid, who has been an occasional contributor to our Voices section, is joining the regular rotation of monthly opinion columnists for the Springfield Daily Citizen. Kincaid is a retired communications professional who served as chief of staff for three presidents of Missouri State University.

Disgusted.  That’s how I felt when I heard about the February 10 incident of someone allegedly setting fire to the belongings of several people who are homeless in the small camp they had built in northwest Springfield.

“Surely, we are better than this,” I thought to myself.

When our family was getting ready to move from Emporia, Kansas, to Springfield in 1986, I was told we were moving to the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”  I was not familiar with that description, but it intrigued me.

I grew up going to church, but I am not a religious scholar, and I haven’t been involved with organized religion for quite a few years.  I tell people I consider myself spiritual, but not religious in the traditional sense.  I trust there’s a higher being, I believe in many of the teachings in the Bible and try to live up to them.  I respect and envy those who have deep religious beliefs and act on those beliefs.

Paul Kincaid (Photo: provided)

Anyway, when I heard we were moving to the Buckle of the Bible Belt, my thought was,  “How can it be a bad thing to move to a place where people believe in the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, Corinthians 13:13, and all of the other biblical teachings?”

When we arrived, the number of churches of all denominations was noticeable.  There were plenty of places, times, days, and ways for citizens to worship.  And there were multiple references to the strong beliefs, such as “In God We Trust” on law enforcement vehicles.

To be sure, Springfield and southwest Missouri have the same issues as other cities across the country:  domestic violence, meth and other drugs, too much crime, poverty and food insecurity, etc.  There is still racial tension and an occasional despicable act such as desecration of the Jewish cemetery.  

But there also are a lot of good organizations with good-hearted people who acknowledge these challenges and are dedicated to facing them head-on:  CASA, Isabel’s House, Lost and Found, Convoy of Hope, Boys and Girls Clubs, Victory Mission, Arc of the Ozarks, United Way, Community Foundation, and dozens more.  They all make a difference, and they all try to live up to being in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

I have not known many people who are homeless, but I have read plenty of accounts.  I have never heard of any individual whose goal was to be homeless — not individuals, not families, not veterans, not the elderly, not teens.  The circumstances vary from mental health issues to substance abuse to making poor life decisions, all of which contribute to an individual’s plight.  

When someone is homeless, survival soon becomes the only goal.  Homelessness is yet another issue Springfield and the Ozarks are trying to address.  There has been significant progress, but more remains to be done.

Homelessness in Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

It’s hard for me to imagine a more dire situation than being homeless.  The idea of hauling your worldly belongings in a shopping cart or large trash bag or baby stroller or in an oversized backpack;  trying to find a safe and sheltered place to sleep every night, especially in bad weather;  trying to find enough food to survive until tomorrow, all seem dehumanizing.

Finding solutions for individuals who are homeless is difficult and I certainly don’t claim to have the answer.  I understand the problems with homeless camps, panhandling, and public displays of bad behavior.  It’s a challenge that we need to keep working to solve as a community.  But setting someone’s shelter and belongings on fire, for whatever reason, seems like the ultimate in piling on or kicking someone while they are down or whatever other description you want to use.  

I keep waiting for law enforcement to update us on the incident.  There should be an incident report.  There might be body camera footage or photos.  I am confident that if an arsonist set fire to someone’s home, it would be the first story on the nightly news, all of the evidence would be made public, and there might even be a reward for helping find the perpetrator. 

I don’t know what happened or who is responsible, but law enforcement ought to be trying to learn the truth.  As it says in John 8:32 “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I worked for a university president who reminded us regularly, “We’re getting paid for our judgment.”  He was right.  The person or persons responsible for this terrible act had options available to them — multiple ways to express their displeasure with the situation.  Out of all the possibilities, their judgment was to start a bonfire with all the worldly possessions of the people who are homeless staying there. 

I’d like to believe that we are better than that.

So far, the only response I have heard is something to the effect of, “We have rules and if you don’t follow the rules, there are consequences.”  

Living in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, I assume one of the “rules” — maybe the most important rule — being referenced is the Golden Rule:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid, an Independent, lives in Springfield. He spent 39 years in higher education public relations and governmental relations, and served as Chief of Staff to three University Presidents. The final 28 years were at Missouri State University. After retiring from Missouri State in 2014, he served eight years as Executive Director of Jobs for America’s Graduates-Missouri. He owns and operates his consulting company, Kincaid Communications, LLC. Email: More by Paul Kincaid