Branson tries to find affordable housing for the homeless

BRANSON, Mo. (AP) — It was a windy day in early June, and Cecelia Dardnella McGrath had spent much of the morning crying. She woke that day to police ordering her to pack up her belongings and leave the wooded area where she’d camped for more than three months.

It was private property, and the owner wanted her gone.

By noon McGrath had crammed her possessions into her beat-up van, wiped the tears as best she could and headed to the Branson strip to do what she came to do when she moved to town 30 years ago: make music.

McGrath was a professional musician in Branson for many years. She and her ex-husband fronted a band called The Skillet Licker Songwriter Review. For a time they had their own show where they performed and showcased other local musicians. They played country and bluegrass, blues, old rock ‘n’ roll and original songs, as well.

Back then, she organized fundraisers for people with cancer and victims of the 2011 Branson flood.

“I was a productive part of the community,” she said. “Then I became homeless and they look at me like I was dirt, like I didn’t exist anymore. Some of them know who I am. They know who I am, which is really sad.”

For the past six years, McGrath has been part of the unsheltered homeless community in Branson, a population that by most accounts has grown in the last year.

The majority of Branson’s working poor — at least 1,500 people, maybe more by some estimates — live in extended-stay motels along or near the strip. Carla Perry with Elevate Branson estimates there’s likely another 100 or so living in encampments and vehicles.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Perry said.

By noon, McGrath and her dog, a 7-year-old Chihuahua named Mr. Binks, had settled into their usual spot outside an empty strip mall. The strip mall — tucked between a busy Walmart and a grocery store — is the only place in this tourist town known for live music shows where she can sing and play without getting run off or forced to buy a permit.

She pulled her guitar from its case and began to play “The Weight (Take a Load Off Fanny).”

Mr. Binks curled up in the guitar case and went to sleep next to a cardboard sign that read: “Dog food, people food, water. Anything will help. Thank you.”

Even after hours of crying and distress, McGrath’s voice was soulful and robust, carrying throughout the parking lot.

A car pulled up, a woman jumped out and approached McGrath. The lady placed a bottle of cold water next to the guitar case and apologized, saying that was all she had to give. McGrath was grateful and quickly took a big drink.

McGrath then began to sing and play “Angel From Montgomery” followed by “American Pie.”

Another vehicle stopped, a woman rolled down the window and held out a few dollars. McGrath walked over to the car to get the money, Mr. Binks following close behind.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” McGrath told the woman.

McGrath and Mr. Binks returned to their places and she played one of her original songs, “When the Skies Awake, I Feel Good.”

She explained that one of her six kids used to say that when he was little. She really loves it when children stop and listen to her sing.

McGrath said she’s been making music since she was 3 and performing on stage since age 9. She doesn’t read sheet music but can play several instruments including the bass, drums, flute and piano.

She figures she’s written about 500 songs over a 40-year period.

For a few minutes, she reminisced about her 22 years with her band. She talked about rubbing elbows with country legends like Mel Tillis and Barbara Fairchild. People used to compare her and her ex to Sonny and Cher on stage, she said.

“He sounds like Jim Croce. I kind of sound like Janis Joplin,” she recalled, smiling. “Branson used to be a lot of fun when it was all about music.”

McGrath said her husband left her about six years ago and things just fell apart. McGrath was so devastated that for a time, she couldn’t bring herself to make music. She hasn’t been on stage since and became homeless. She said she has multiple sclerosis and cannot work a “normal” job.

“This is what I do to make my living and keep my vehicle going,” she said of her daily performances in front of the strip mall. “This is what I’ve always done anyway. The good Lord allows me to do that, and the people are kindhearted.”

McGrath made it clear: Branson police have always been good to her. She understood they were doing their job that morning when they told her to pack up and move on.

“They are good to people. They hate to have to do this every time they have to move us,” she said. “It was hard for them to come out today and tell me I had to leave.”

Asked where she’d sleep that night, the tears returned to her eyes.

“I don’t have any idea,” she said, staring out into the parking lot.

Elevate Branson, formerly known as Jesus Was Homeless, is a nonprofit organization that helps people in poverty who are living in extended stays as well as the unsheltered homeless. It was founded by Bryan and Amy Stallings, who also planted Gateway Branson Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation, in 2012.

The church and Elevate Branson are headquartered at 310 Gretna Road, within walking distance of the Branson strip. Elevate Branson has been delivering meals to people living in extended stays every Thursday night for more than a decade.

Perry, who works at the front desk as community connections coordinator, points to a couple of reasons she believes are behind the recent increase in homelessness: the city’s effort to make extended stay motels safer for those who live in them is one, the COVID-19 pandemic is the other.

City officials started cracking down on extended stay motel owners a few years ago, requiring them to pass annual health, fire and building code inspections in order to stay open. The city closed a handful of motels and several more decided to close on their own rather than make improvements. Not only did that leave folks with fewer housing options, Perry said in many cases the managers and owners closed without refunding people’s money.

And as it has across the nation, the pandemic and temporary shutdown have put a strain on Branson’s economy. Making matters worse in Branson, where so much of the workforce lives in extended-stay motels, those people did not have the same federal protections from evictions. Some were laid off and evicted, as well, Perry said.

That comes at a time when Branson was already dealing with a serious shortage of affordable housing. The Taney County Partnership executed a comprehensive housing study in 2019 that found a significant gap in affordable housing in Taney County with Branson having the largest shortage in inventory.

Developers and city leaders point to Branson’s rough terrain as a key reason.

“The infrastructure is very costly there. It’s all rock. Typically the topography is very hilly,” explained Debra Hart, a co-developer with a group that is working to create affordable housing in Branson. “You have so many more costs that are in (a housing development) before you even start going vertical.”

“You have kind of a perfect storm,” Hart said. “You have really high infrastructure cost, then you have people that are in service industry positions that are not terribly high wage positions. And so it just magnifies the problem.”

Perry, who was once homeless herself, has worked at Elevate Branson for five years. She is typically the first person clients talk to when they come in for services. She hears about their immediate needs, if they are homeless or hungry, in need of medical care, diapers for their baby or just need a place to sit down and rest.

“It’s a tourist town. It’s seasonal jobs. So maybe you don’t work enough quarters to qualify for unemployment,” she said. “Renting a place — it’s almost not an option because you’ve got deposits and rent and utilities and water and trash and cable.

“So they stay in the motels along the strip. Once they get into those, it’s just a trap to get out. It’s $700 a month. When are you ever going to save enough if you are only making $8.25 an hour and you only get to work 25 hours a week?”

Perry volunteered to help with the most recent point-in-time homeless count but says the official data is off. Even though she knew there were homeless squatters in some of the closed motels, Perry said volunteers couldn’t count them because it was private property.

She and her recovery group volunteered to clean up abandoned homeless camps a few months ago. They found baby and children’s toys in at least one camp.

“They don’t come forward because that can cause (the state Children’s Division) to be in their lives and take their kids,” Perry said.

In recent months, the News-Leader spent time with Perry, McGrath and others who sought services at Elevate Branson and also spoke with a city official and a developer who are hoping to bring more affordable housing to Branson.

On a recent steamy day, a man named Elwood and his 19-year-old daughter sat in their blue van on Elevate Branson’s parking lot. Their windows were rolled down and doors open, trying to catch a breeze as they waited to meet with the News-Leader.

The van was clean and organized — everything in its place.

Elwood asked that the interview be conducted several feet away near the woods so his daughter wouldn’t have to be involved. He also asked that his last name not be used so she wouldn’t be embarrassed if her friends found out they are homeless.

He and his daughter had been living and sleeping in the van for nearly two weeks.

Elwood said he first came to Branson in 1985 when the country music and tourism heyday was kicking off.

“It was a lot funner back then,” Elwood said, smiling at the memory. “You know, all the old stars died. That really cut into wages and tips. And it made the price of everything go up, whereas the wages stayed down.”

According to Elwood, Branson had affordable housing back in the ’80s.

“You could rent to own almost anywhere in Branson,” he said. “And cheap, low down. I made a mistake. I didn’t buy.”

Elwood said he’s bounced around over the years. He returned to California for a time and also lived in Forsyth and Springfield some.

He and his daughter’s mom were married briefly, but that didn’t work out.

Elwood has had custody of his daughter since she was 7.

“I had to fight to get her. Her mom lost her to foster placement,” he said. “It took me five years to get her back.”

In recent years he’s lived in Branson, working a myriad of jobs.

“I’ve worked up and down the strip: construction, restaurants, busboy, custodian, did cleaning crews on The Landing,” he said. “Pretty much whatever entry-level type work, I’ve done it.”

He and his daughter are currently employed cleaning condos.

The father-daughter duo works fast, he said, and they can make pretty good money during the tourist season.

Elwood said he can’t find a decent house or apartment because landlords won’t rent to someone with a felony record. According to online court documents, Elwood has three driving while intoxicated charges and a stealing charge. The most recent charge was in 2003.

Because so many jobs in Branson are seasonal, Elwood said it’s important to put money back and sign up for unemployment insurance.

“I got lucky this winter because I had the money and I got a job where I could work in the winter,” he said.

But when the pandemic hit, “it put us completely out of work,” Elwood explained. Their jobs have returned now, but it’s difficult to save enough to afford a place other than an extended stay.

They were living in an extended-stay motel until recently, but Elwood said there was too much criminal activity.

“That’s why I’m homeless. I moved out of that place,” he said. “The alcoholism, the drug addiction, the other weird stuff — sexual predator types — I’m like, my kid is not living there. I’m not living here.”

He described the extended-stays in Branson as being “traps.” He said the most recent motel they stayed in charged $168 a week plus a $100 deposit, of which only half was refundable.

“They drain every penny you can make,” he said. “Just go around the strip and you’ll see every one of them are bad. ...

“They take people’s money. They make excuses and kick them out. It’s all a scam. Everything is a scam.”

He and his daughter used their federal stimulus checks to buy the van. Most of their belongings are in storage.

“I never thought it would happen to me. I remember hearing people say you get stuck,” he said, “That it’s a motel trap and they couldn’t get out of the motel. I was like, ‘Oh that’s a bunch of bologna.’ Well, guess what? It happened to me, one week at a time, one week at a time. I had the money to get out, but I couldn’t find a place, so I’m stuck there.”

Elwood fears the pandemic is only going to make things worse. He’s put together a “bug-out kit,” a small suitcase packed with survival essentials: towels, soap, a knife and sharpener, a small water purifier capable of filtering 200 gallons of water, batteries, flashlight, first-aid supplies, that sort of thing.

“It’s a ‘run-away box’,” he said. “The coronavirus is out there, and the system is going to probably see a lot of collapse.”

For Elwood, the most important things are working, saving money and keeping his daughter safe and happy. His plan is to save enough money to buy a camper and set it up at a campground.

“The difference between me and these other homeless people, they just gave up,” he said. “Me and her are part of the population that are going to be OK. We can bounce back.”

“I love her to death,” he said, looking at his daughter sitting in the van. “She deserves better than this.”

Tim Moss came to the Ozarks in the late 1960s when his family moved to Blue Eye.

When he was 17, he and a buddy rode their motorcycles to Springfield “to check out the girls at the college.”

Once in Springfield, they stopped at a head shop on Missouri 13 (Kansas Expressway).

“We both had been smoking a little,” Moss said, grinning. “We got to pushing on each other, trying to get through the door of this head shop. It just so happens, the door on this side was the recruiter’s office. The next morning, they put me on the bus at 4 o’clock in the morning headed for Kansas City.”

And that’s how Moss, known to friends as ‘Pops,’ says he joined the Army. He served from 1973-1975 and was a heavy equipment mechanic in the service.

When he got out, he continued working as a mechanic until the 1990s. A medical condition eventually forced him to give it up, “so I fell back on being a carpenter,” he said. “For quite a few years I had my own business, a remodeling business.”

In 2004, his 21-year-old son died in a wreck.

“My wife pulled me through that,” he said. “Then in ’09, I lost her. Basically I woke up one morning, instead of a house full of people and my wife sitting there, I found myself alone.”

“I sort of crawled in that bottle and I was there for about four or five years before I got out of it,” he said. “Of course, like they say, whiskey is a good remover. It removes everything. I lost my house. I lost my tools. I lost my vehicles, the whole nine yards.”

Moss spent the next several years “bouncing around.” He lived with his mom some until she died. For a time, he lived under a bridge.

“Had me a nice little condo going on,” he joked.

Much of the past year, Moss has been camping in wooded areas in Branson.

“I had a spot by myself. I like it that way better,” he said. “I’ve seen so many homeless people that want to group up, and the next thing you know, they are stealing from each other. They are fighting. It’s just too much drama going on. No, I want to be all by my lonesome. You don’t even need to know where I’m at.”

Moss said he’s seen the unsheltered homeless population grow in recent months, he believes largely due to the pandemic.

“Since the lockdown, the numbers have really went up,” he said. “The president put out that landlords couldn’t kick people out. Well, that is if you are renting an apartment or a house. Extended stays is under a whole different thing. If you don’t pay your rent, you are out. There was a lot of people that lost their housing.”

Moss had been living in a tent until three days before meeting the News-Leader in June.

Perry and the staff at Elevate Branson worked with Moss for months to get his ID and birth certificate. Once he had those, he was able to request his military paperwork and be approved for housing through Catholic Charities’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.

“You just got to have a little bit of faith,” he said. “It’s all in God’s time, not mine.”

Even though he is housed now, Moss continues to be a regular face at Elevate Branson. He stops by several times a week to help out. On Sundays, he gets there early to help set up for church.

The News-Leader called Moss last week to see how he was adjusting to life in an apartment.

“It’s going great,” he said. “It’s just a studio apartment, but just being able to get up in the morning, not having to worry about when you leave if all your stuff is going to be there when you get back.”

The apartment is about a mile and a half from Elevate Branson and is close to the strip, downtown and the grocery store. Moss doesn’t have a vehicle, so location was important.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “Sleeping on the ground was getting a little rough on the old back.”

Asked why he continues to walk all the way to and from Elevate Branson, Moss laughed.

“Because I love the Lord and I love to work for the Lord,” he said. “Besides that, I don’t have nothing to do right at the moment. I’m too blessed to be stressed.”

During Branson’s tourism boom in the 1980s and 1990s, the city was inundated with requests for building permits to build hotels and motels along and near the strip, City Administrator Stan Dobbins has said.

Over the years, as tourism waned and the buildings aged, owners began converting their nightly motels into extended stay motels where people could pay by the week and reside more or less permanently.

Today, there are more than 20 of these decades-old motels on and near the Branson strip. Some are closed and boarded up. Others continue to serve as long-term housing for Branson’s working poor.

Over the years, the motels gained a reputation for high crime and unhealthy living conditions. But because Branson doesn’t have a public transportation system, the extended stays often are the only affordable housing option for those employed by the tourism and service industry, many of whom don’t have vehicles.

City ordinances have been implemented in recent years aimed at holding owners and managers responsible for improving security and building conditions.

Under an ordinance that went into effect in 2018, establishments that want a Branson lodging business license must pass a health inspection by the Taney County Health Department, a fire inspection by the Branson Fire Department, a code inspection by the Branson Police Department, pay all taxes and fees and present their state of Missouri-issued lodging license.

That ordinance is designed to give “more teeth” to health department, fire and building codes.

“We had a lady that was in hospice care. That is how we found out about her living conditions,” Dobbins said in a recent interview. “There was a water leak that had been going on forever. The carpet where she walked, you actually squished. It had mold all over it.”

“People don’t deserve to live that way. That is wrong,” he said. “They are paying (up to) $700 a month for these apartments — I call them apartments, but they are hotel rooms — for a hotel room that was never designed for somebody to live in it long-term.”

While the city forced a handful of motels to close due to this ordinance, several others closed on their own rather than make the necessary improvements.

Dobbins acknowledged that the closures have indeed shrunk the city’s affordable housing inventory.

“We have some that have simply chosen to close,” he said. “And that’s the troubling side of this.”

However, some of the owners have embraced the new requirements and are working to make their properties safer for tenants, Dobbins added.

‘We have had some great successes with some of our properties,” Dobbins said. “We do have one in particular, Plato’s Cave. They have actually tried to embrace that. They have a very large complex so they have the rooms. It’s just been about getting the rooms up to the standard of an apartment instead of the standard of a motel room. They have expanded out there. That has helped offset some of the loss of some of the hotel rooms.”

While complexes like Plato’s Cave work well for singles, couples and small families, the former motel only offers single rooms and studio apartments.

For young mom Alisha, who asked her last name not be used for fear she would draw the attention of the Children’s Division, that sort of housing doesn’t work.

Alisha and her husband walked two miles on a hot day, pushing two strollers filled with small children and holding the hand of another toddler, to meet with the News-Leader at Elevate Branson. They have five children living with them and an older child who is staying with relatives.

Alisha said they first became homeless a few years ago when living in Springfield. They got behind on their rent and were evicted. They lived in a tent for a while.

Like so many, they came to Branson to find work.

“My parents lived down here so they told me to come here and I’d be able to get a job just like that because it was (tourist) season,” she said. “And we’d be able to at least have shelter.”

Her parents were right: Alisha immediately found a job at a Wendy’s and worked there for three years. Her husband is disabled.

Alisha said they lived in an extended-stay located across the street from White Water for two and a half years.

Alisha said a former manager put the large family in a double room for $1,000 a month. That manager quit a few months before the extended-stay closed in November 2019. The new manager, a woman Alisha presumed to be the owner, didn’t seem to care much what happened to the people who lived there, she said.

“They just shut down automatically,” Alisha said. Her family was given two days to get out and did not get their rent or deposit back.

“It was half our rent for that month,” she said.

They briefly lived with Alisha’s parents, but it was too crowded in the two-bedroom trailer.

When she got her federal stimulus check this spring, the family used it to get into what they thought was the perfect place: a studio apartment close to her job at a fast-food restaurant.

It even had an indoor pool — a treat for her kids who have never really had a place of their own to play.

“It had a stove and a kitchen area,” Alisha said. “I could cook for them and do right for them. It was a bigger room than a motel.”

Alisha said the manager who moved them in knew how many kids they had and everything seemed fine. But just a few weeks after the family moved in, a new manager arrived.

That new manager spotted Alisha with her young children at the pool and asked if they all lived there.

“I said yes. She was like ‘OK,’” Alisha recalled. “Next day I have a letter on my door.”

It turned out having that many people in a studio apartment (or a motel room) was a violation of Branson’s fire code.

When the family met with the News-Leader, they had a few days to find a new place within walking distance of Alisha’s job on Shepherd of the Hills Expressway.

Since there’s no affordable housing in that area, they figured they’d be stuck renting two extended-stay motel rooms to comply with fire codes. How they would afford two rooms on her minimum wage job and his $680 monthly disability check was a question they couldn’t answer.

“I want so bad to be able to have room for them,” Alisha said, looking at her small children. “Whenever we lived in Springfield we used to go to the park once a week. No matter what we were doing, we went to the park once a week.”

Since moving to Branson, “They don’t even know what a park is,” she said, crying.

Surrounded by family-friendly entertainment and attractions, Alisha said they simply can’t afford to do much of what Branson has to offer.

They took the kids to ride go-karts once and sometimes go to Andy’s, to sit outside and eat ice cream.

“But everything else is so expensive,” she said.

Efforts to provide more affordable options are ongoing.

Elevate Branson’s co-founder Bryan Stallings said his organization intends to announce plans later this year for an affordable housing project similar to Eden Village’s tiny homes communities in Springfield. When complete, it will be geared more toward single or married individuals who are on a fixed income and stuck in an extended-stay motel.

“What we are going to be offering is a solution to the lack of affordable housing in the Branson area and will be combined with opportunities for employment training,” he said in an email.

Another development, already announced, could be accepting new tenants as early as next year.

Debra Hart is the co-developer with the Branson Affordable Housing Developers LLC, a group that is working to create more affordable housing in Branson.

The group intends to break ground on a 40-unit development located off Fall Creek Road within the next few months. The first units could be available as early as the first of the year, with the project scheduled for completion by October 2021.

“It’s a combination of two- and three-bedroom units, townhomes and single-family homes,” Hart said. “It comes with a path to homeownership, which I think tells a tremendous story for affordable housing.”

This particular development is located on a rarity in Branson: acreage that is relatively flat and has some dirt. It’s a 4.5-acre property that is part of an 80-acre tract of land owned by the other developers involved with the project: the Ruda and Combs families. Of that 80 acres, Hart said about 50 could be developed into housing developments. (The remaining 30 acres are typical Branson: rocks and a big cliff.)

Hart said the Rudas and Combses are interested in creating more affordable housing for Branson’s workforce on the property. The location of the property is ideal for those working in Branson’s tourist and service industry, she said, within a mile of some 300 jobs.

“If they are working on the strip, frankly this location will be excellent,” she said. “We’ve got the outlet mall. We’ve got the new aquarium. We’ve got all those service industry things along the strip.”

The project received low-income housing tax credits to help offset costs, plus $5 million in Community Development Block Grant disaster recovery funds.

“The more dollars you have in (a housing development), the higher your debt is and the higher your rent has to be,” Hart said. “If you want to make something that is going to be affordable, you need to be able to find a way to cut those costs on the front end.”

Another boost is hopefully coming from Branson officials.

“The city has expressed an interest and willingness to help,” she said, adding that developers are asking the city to help with some sewer and water extensions to the property and to waive or reduce some connection fees.

“That agreement is not complete yet, but the city has acted favorably with respect to our requests,” she said.

According to Hart, it’s going to take that kind of cooperation and assistance from the city in order to incentivize more affordable housing projects in Branson.

“Branson, from an economic development perspective for their community, they need to figure out workforce housing because it’s their bread and butter,” she said.

“If you don’t have the ability to house the folks that are going to work in those industries, those industries can’t survive. It’s a Catch-22.”