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Bell ringers raise money for the hidden poor of St. Charles County

Bell ringers raise money for the hidden poor of St. Charles County

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O’FALLON, Mo. • The best Salvation Army kettle caller in all west St. Charles County wears big white shoes — so big he slips the shoes on already tied, without bending over.

Double hip replacement surgeries have left an imbalance in his step — one he attempts to offset with a sliver of cardboard slapped in with the right sole.

Keith Crumes’ voice is booming, though. You can hear him belt out a spirit-filled rendition of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” or “Joy To the World” from the far end of the Dierbergs parking lot.

That he sings — and yells — sets him apart as a kettle caller and bell-ringer. By the time shoppers get out of their SUVs and walk to the store entrance, their hearts have been softened by the sound of a grown man singing with the enthusiasm they had as children.

Crisp bills are usually folded and ready to drop into the hole of the locked red kettle by the time they get close to Crumes, who cracks a bell at them like a whip and bids them each a Merry Christmas.

Then he picks up where he left off in song, sometimes with the help of a passerby.

“If I was walking in the store, they probably wouldn’t speak to me,” said Crumes, 58. “People are so tied up in their own world. This has helped me to realize there’s lots of good people out here.”

Crumes draws about $100 an hour in donations, according to the Salvation Army. The money helps fund the only emergency shelter for homeless families in Warren, Lincoln and St. Charles counties. It is based in O’Fallon, and when one of the seven rooms opens it usually fills right away, the manager said.

Many donors didn’t seem to know exactly where their money goes — just to a good cause.

“They give from their hearts,” Crumes said.

He should know. He’s looked thousands of donors in the eye and lived in the area since before the great migration hit. Crumes grew up in nearby Wentzville, hunting on his grandfather’s land and playing tight end on the football team. Other than a decade with the Army and a few other excursions, he said, he has lived in St. Charles County most of his life.

“I’ve seen the change,” he said. “It was a big, dramatic change. There have been people coming from everywhere.”

O’Fallon’s population has more than quadrupled since 1990, and nearby Wentzville has grown more than six-fold. St. Charles County is the state’s fastest growing, adding 5 percent more residents since 2010 alone.

Amid that growth, the county has remained more affluent than the state and region. Household earnings are $25,000 higher than Missouri averages, and St. Charles’ poverty rate is less than half that of the state.

Even so, 7 percent of county residents are impoverished.

The homeless people here tend to sleep in cars and at cheap motels, or double or triple up with friends and relatives.

“They do a very good job of hiding the poor out here,” said Jean Tetzlaff, 53, a programmer from Dardenne Prairie.

She was drawn to Crumes’ singing at the Diebergs near the retail-lined intersection of highways K and 364, the multiple-lane thoroughfare that spans the Missouri River beyond Page Avenue.

Before Tetzlaff became more involved with her church, she said, “I had no idea we had that much poor here.”

BOOTSTRAPS

Government funding for homeless services has traditionally focused on urban areas that have supporting infrastructure. As population shifted to suburbs, in pursuit of good jobs, new housing and well-performing schools, safety net funding and public transportation options haven’t kept up, said Dottie Kastigar, a social worker for the Community Council of St. Charles County.

“It’s not as in your face,” she said. “So people question if there is need. That is the downside to the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps community.

“People try to manage on their own until they can’t anymore. By the time they appear at a social service agency, they are very deeply in debt and have a long way to dig themselves out.”

Kastigar helps oversee $500,000 in annual federal housing funds used to house homeless people in Warren, Lincoln and St. Charles counties. She helps organize an annual homeless census, which on one day in 2014 identified 896 people — sheltered and unsheltered — in those three counties. According to her figures, that compares with 1,354 in St. Louis and 402 in St. Louis County.

Many people are left on their own and not counted.

Kastigar said the need for affordable rental housing is large. Other than minimal assistance, she said, there aren’t county funds to help adults in poverty, unless they have been diagnosed with a disability.

Churches and charities do a lot on an individual basis.

“This community tries hard to take care of its own,” she said. “I could tell you hundreds of stories of people rallying around specific needs. It takes something beyond that. It requires an infrastructure of support.”

Paul Kruse , who runs a faith-based nonprofit called First Step Back Home, said many of the people he sees are working poor. He said he had a 50 percent success rate of working with people who really want to get on their feet.

“We get over 100 calls a week, and we are just a little mom-and-pop organization.”

HOMELESS WITH

PINK FINGERNAILS

Others land at a wooded spread at 1 William Booth Drive, near Interstate 70 in O’Fallon. Booth was a Methodist pastor who founded the Salvation Army 150 years ago in England.

There’s a church, food pantry and family shelter in O’Fallon that holds about 30 people, including a dorm room for women. There’s nothing for single men.

Maj. Paul Ferguson and his wife have been in charge of the complex since 2011, after other assignments with the Salvation Army in the Midwest.

“There is a perception that the streets are paved with gold in St. Charles County,” Ferguson said.

But he said there were not enough services, singling out public transportation.

“You can’t even take a bus down Highway K, which would be perfect,” he said. “There’s businesses all up and down here.”

He said people often showed up who had never asked for help. He said 388 people came for fellowship and a free Christmas dinner last Sunday.

“If we had a place twice this size, we would probably fill,” he said of the shelter.

Three residents there this week who didn’t want to be named described their struggles.

A woman, 48, said she used to work for TWA, then the Chrysler plant in Fenton. Once it closed, she worked in food service. Then foreclosure and an abusive relationship hit. She recently got a temporary job at a business in Earth City that packs commissary items for prisons.

A widow, 69, had her gray hair styled nicely. She had bright pink fingernails and wore a flowery blouse. She said you didn’t have to look like a bum to be homeless.

She worked in a hospital for decades and has been at the shelter a few weeks. She said she had already stayed in a motel for months and a borrowed car when she couldn’t afford that.

The third was a former nurse who recently went through a divorce. She said she and her new partner recently lived in Moscow Mills, but there weren’t services there for them and their combined family of five children.

Michele Sloan, owner of 1st Choice Real Estate School, dropped in at the shelter about the dinner hour to see if residents needed anything for Christmas. She told the manager that all she had to do was get on Facebook or send an email blast.

But the manager told her that the children’s wish lists were filled, thanks to donations from area residents. There was a need for detergent, items they use all year.

Sloan was back in a few hours with 20 tubs of detergent.

“My staff and I, because we are very blessed, we do a lot of charitable activities throughout the year, not just at Christmas,” Sloan said. “People generally do care. If you put the word out, people will come through.”

BEING BEST

Crumes, the kettle caller, puts out the word by singing and yelling out Christmas carols. He said he was a deacon at New Hope Christian Church but was not in the choir there.

A long time ago, the Salvation Army put him up one night when he was on the road in Arkansas and didn’t have a place to stay. He’s received some utility assistance, too.

One year when it was really cold out, he filled in at the kettle for his wife. She had a stereo, but when the batteries died, he started singing, and people seemed to like it. He’s been doing it the past six or seven years.

Generally, bell-ringers are unpaid volunteers. Crumes is one of a handful who earns hourly pay. He said it essentially covered gas for his pickup and lunch. According to the Salvation Army, he brings in more donations than any other ringer in west St. Charles County.

Crumes said he liked to do it because the donations were more than he could ever give. He’s disabled.

The donations from all the kettle callers and bell-ringers fund about a third of the Salvation Army’s budget in the area. The donations help pay for food, shelter and other assistance.

In the middle of Crumes’ shift, a cab pulled up and delivered Monica Groene to work. Groene, a part-time bagger at the grocery store, said she suffered a head injury in 1985 from a rollover accident.

She is grateful for the job. She loves the interaction and the paycheck, especially this time of year.

“I’ve got to have money to spend,” she said with a smile. “It’s Christmas time.”

She could hear Crumes singing from across the parking lot where she gathered empty grocery carts.

“He is a sweetheart,” she said. “It’s always a different person (at the kettle), but Keith is the best.”

Post-Dispatch data reporter Walker Moskop contributed to this story.

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