Megan Owens and friends. Photo by Ashley Lauer.
It’s unclear how many families are living with their children in the extended-stay hotels and surrounding woods of Branson, Mo., a scenic Ozark Mountain town known for its booming live entertainment industry. But they tell the same stories over and over. They heard there were jobs. They spent the last of their money on the journey, and the car they drove down in died immediately upon arrival. With no friends, no money and no transportation, they hole up in extended stays with hungry kids in tow, relying on an ever-growing network of food pantries, hot meals from church groups and in some cases, government assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
BRANSON, Miss. -- Thursday nights are “Happy Meal” nights in Branson. Volunteers from a group called Jesus Was Homeless load over 800 sack lunches decorated with smiley faces into vans, which travel five separate routes and deliver the meals to more than 20 extended-stay hotels and campgrounds.
On this particular evening, Bryan and Amy Stallings led the route along the famous 76 Strip lined with neon lights, theaters, mini golf courses, water parks and go-cart tracks. They founded Jesus Was Homeless several years ago, after an impulsive delivery of about 30 meals revealed there was a much greater need.
The first stops were at the Good Shepherd Inn and Family Inn. Several children eyed the van from a distance, and then approached the volunteers with grins. They cheerfully ripped into the meals and sucked down juice packets. A few of them followed the volunteers around, handing out the meals themselves when residents opened their doors.
Some rooms were occupied by entire families. A young mother of three said she and her husband had moved from California looking for work. Another barely acknowledged the volunteers. Her five-year-old scampered after the team hopping along the halls and up and down steps during the rest of the deliveries at his hotel. He had been doing so every week for two years, volunteers said.
Technically children living in these hotels are counted as homeless by their school districts. There were more than 500 of them in the 2011-2012 school year in Branson, and more than 24,000 statewide. Their hotel units are often without kitchens, so they eat lots of canned food. And free breakfasts and lunches at school aren’t enough for many of them. This is most apparent on Monday mornings in the school cafeterias.
“To be quite blunt, there are little ones that are literally licking their plates,” said Meghan Connell, director of Gift of Hope and the Backpack Program. Connell’s program provides many of these kids with food over the weekends. Several years ago, teachers noticed children showing signs of hunger on Monday mornings, including sneaking food into their pockets for later.
Megan Owens (pictured at left, center), 12, received weekend groceries last year. She has lived at the Palms Inn for three years with her parents and is one of about 20 kids that call the Palms home. They work at restaurants during the tourist season, which lasts from May through early December. Happy meals and weekend groceries are just one way her family makes ends meet when it comes to food, she said. Megan said after she fed herself, she shared the rest of the food with her neighbors.
“Before my mom gets laid off we buy a bunch of food for the winter,” she said. “We’re just all kind of like bears. We hibernate.”
School staff identified about 1,500 students in Branson and neighboring Forsyth as candidates for the program last year, but it only raised funds to feed 800. This year they hope to increase the program’s reach to at least 1,000.
Even though the food is packed at Branson High School, teens are especially difficult to reach because they often feel embarrassed to accept the food, said Connell. The strategy has been to target them through their younger siblings, she said.
They pack extra food in those bags. None of it goes to waste, she said.
Bright Lights, Seasonal Work
While Branson only has about 10,500 residents, the town hosted more than 7 million guests in 2011. Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Andy Williams are among dozens of performers who put Branson on the map in the 1980s and 1990s. An episode of “60 Minutes” that aired in 1991 gave Branson the title, “Live Country Music Capital of the Universe.”
In this same episode, Roy Clark speculated that tourists spent more than $1.5 billion a year in Branson. And Mel Tillis hinted that he made about $6 million in six months. It’s easy to see why people who are desperate for work think they’ll catch a break there.
The annual number of tourists coming to Branson has doubled since 1991 . But for most, prospects remain bleak.
In fact, most of the available jobs are in the service industry. The wages are low and many of the attractions close during the winter months. Money is too tight to move out of the hotels and campgrounds, which charge by the week and don’t require security deposits.
“It’s feast or famine, and now we’re back to famine,” said Debbie Harding, a woman in her 50s who helps lead the sack lunch program for Jesus Was Homeless. She’s a resident at the Palms, too, where the Sunday afternoon barbecue took place.
It was the last barbeque of the summer. The Palms was situated on one of Branson’s signature steep hills, its asphalt parking lot flooded with the smell of charred meat and the humming of a bouncy castle’s motor. A pack of children ran around with bright blue faces stained by snow cones. Adults lounged in chairs, some singing along to an improvised praise band.
Volunteer staff wore tee-shirts that read “Jesus was Homeless” while serving cheeseburgers with the usual condiments and making small talk with the attendees, many of whom were bused in from other extended stays along the 76 strip.
Meals from Jesus Was Homeless helped to fill some holes, Harding said. But when wages dry up, she sometimes turns to food stamps -- now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows poverty rates holding steady across the United States, but volunteers in the Branson area say that the population living in extended-stay motels and campgrounds has only increased since the Great Recession.
The corresponding need for supplemental food has increased alongside them, something that worries organizers and volunteers. If congressional efforts to cut funding to SNAP by $40 billion over the next 10 years succeed, families like Owens’ will be forced to rely even more on organizations like Jesus Was Homeless and the Backpack Program.
Pat Davis is the executive director of Christian Action Ministries (CAM), a local food pantry. She says the pending cuts to SNAP have the potential to hurt children tremendously, and worries that CAM won’t be able to bridge the gap.
“We only have so many resources,” she said. “We can’t increase our giving amount to take care of that amount they would get in food stamps.”
CAM has gone from feeding 200 to 300 families each month to feeding between 1,200 and 1,300. They’ve opened a second location in Forsyth, and developed a mobile unit that can reach people with limited transportation.
The USDA’s report on food insecurity in 2012 shows that Missouri is one of 10 states where people are most likely to go hungry -- the prevalence of food insecurity has doubled over the last 10 years, increasing from 3.3 to 7.6 percent of households. The neighboring state of Arkansas is one of the two most food-insecure states in the country with an average of almost 20 percent of residents experiencing food insecurity from 2010 to 2012.
Volunteers and activists said they don’t believe in government handouts and prefer to care for the poor themselves. But those same people also noted that low wages and a lack of affordable housing and public transportation feed into the cycle of poverty and hunger.
“There are jobs, but not for everybody,” Davis said. “They’re low-paying jobs, and you don’t have a decent place to live. And a lot of people are out here walking because they can’t afford a car, living in the woods because they can’t afford a motel room.”
She’s worked with Stallings on a job training program called Jobs for Life. And Stallings has gone so far as to try out a bike share program to alleviate some of the transportation issues -- it ultimately failed because they didn’t have the skilled labor to maintain the bikes.
Davis said she and others who run the more than 20 local organizations are coming to understand the reality that their pockets are not deep enough to keep everyone from going hungry.
“We need to collectively work on this,” she said. “It’s not one person’s problem, it’s not one person’s fix.”
Davis said her great hope was that her organization would eventually go out of business due to a lack of need. But CAM’s new facility with increased storage space and walk-in refrigerators seem to indicate that’s a long way off -- right now they’re expanding.
Photo credits: From the top: Megan Owens and friends; Megan Owens and friends, photo by Mary Shell; The 76 Strip, photo by Mary Shell; The 76 Strip, photo by Mary Shell; Branson youth, photo by Derrek Bommel.