Crime magnet or refuge for the homeless? Missouri town at odds over abandoned motel

·5 min read

This small Missouri town of roughly 1,650 people struggles with a problem confronting larger communities across the nation — what to do about the people living on its streets.

Only in Adrian, just a 45 minute drive south of Kansas City, some of the homeless are not sleeping on the street. They are holed up in a ramshackle motel in the middle of town. And residents, including the police chief and some City Council members, complain they are “a bunch of druggies,” who have left used syringes and crack pipes on neighbors’ lawns and are “terrorizing a town full of good people” who just want to “protect their property.”

They want the homeless gone. Maybe that’s why they’re unhappy with a local minister who wants to use federal COVID-19 emergency aid to help them. And maybe they think the homeless will disappear if they close their eyes really hard.

But when they open their eyes — and whether or not the money is spent — the homeless will still be there. Denial won’t solve the problem, in Adrian or anywhere else in the United States. That takes a plan, money and time.

The motel, on Old Highway 71, is pretty much abandoned, so neglected it’s unhealthy for anyone. It’s become a haven for drug users who come and go, and it definitely is a town nuisance. But that’s not the whole story.

Those in any 12-step program know this: Step one: Admit there is a problem.

The Rev. Christopher Sams, pastor at the Adrian United Methodist Church, says that if people weren’t squatting in the former inn, they’d be living on the streets or in tents or makeshift structures in nearby woods.

He wants to help them get social services, jobs and more stable housing because “it’s the right thing to do.” But that’s not easy, or inexpensive.

Church youth raised more than $2,000 after a homeless man walked into the sanctuary, asked for help and said his only other option was living in the woods.

They bought Ron Brown, 63, a used camper. He cried. “It was my saving grace,” he said. Without it, “I probably wouldn’t even be here. At my age, the winter would have took me.” He’s saved up enough to get an apartment. “I made it through.”

Brown is why Sams believes that such interventions can work.

Others believe condemning the motel is the cure. Sams, who’s been in Adrian two years and is seen as an “outsider,” has been told that “‘if the church would stop feeding them our problems would go away.’”

“They say we are enabling bad behavior,” he said.

‘It is an addiction issue’

Alderman Bill Lunsford said he’s tried to get the motel condemned, “but that would cost thousands of dollars and our city can’t do that.” Even the health department won’t board it up. He said the motel and people in it have already “been a strain on the community resources.”

Police have patrolled the place “around the clock,” said Police Chief Chris Dillon.

And then there’s this fear: “We could end up with hundreds of homeless down here if word gets out that there is free food and shelter in Adrian,” Alderman David Hummel said.

Trying to shoo away the homeless is not the answer. Joblessness, drug addiction, mental illness and poverty won’t fix themselves.

Yet in an interview, Chief Dillon insisted, “We don’t have a homeless problem.”

He complained of drug-addicted “transients” looking for “any place to flop.”

“It’s not a homeless issue; it is an addiction issue,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to help.”

Dillon said they steal “anything that is not tied down.” He has a stack of reports from police calls to the motel and he’s made several arrests. But, he said, the law requires him to book and release people in custody on nonviolent crimes until a prosecutor files charges, so, “they get to come out and terrorize this town again.”

Dillon said, “the few homeless we got, the one or two, who are here,” came down from Kansas City by way of Interstate 49, the highway east of town.

While addiction can certainly lead to homelessness, and vice versa, the homeless themselves say he’s wrong.

Harry Trostle, a 66-year-old disabled veteran, has been staying in an abandoned motel in Adrian, Missouri, for about six months.
Harry Trostle, a 66-year-old disabled veteran, has been staying in an abandoned motel in Adrian, Missouri, for about six months.

Harry Trostle, a 66-year-old disabled veteran, who has been staying at the motel for about six months, chuckled when he heard Dillon’s count.

“They are crazier than a box of rocks,” he said. “You wouldn’t think there would be so many homeless in a small town like this, but here we are.” He counts “seven or eight,” staying in the motel including one woman who is pregnant. Others, he said, live outdoors.

Four years ago, Trostle’s life was better and he paid $600 a month to stay at the motel. “It was in a little better shape then,” he said. “Nobody pays now. We would be paying for nothing. They turned off the utilities. There’s no lights, no water and no sewage. I think they did that to get us out of here. But where are we gonna go?”

Trostle, with the help of church folk, got in line for a space at a nearby senior living center.

Rick L. Mitchell owns the motel. Council members said Mitchell has refused to clean it up, fix it up or sell it to someone who would. In April, Mitchell was cited for a nuisance violation at the motel. Three months later, he paid a $150 fine and promised to clean up the motel.

The place is still a mess, with piles of garbage, broken windows and doors, and a funky smell.

Mitchell did not answer several calls from us.

Sams has asked the council for about $50,000 of the roughly $300,000 in federal COVID-19 emergency aid it’s received. He wants to feed, clothe and create transitional housing units for the town’s homeless population.

Aldermen said as soon as nonprofits heard about COVID funds, they all came asking for a piece.

Of course they did. They are trying to help people who need it. That’s what the money is for, and if Sams has a good plan to house those without homes, he deserves the town’s help and should get it.

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