If you can imagine Las Vegas, a county fair and the TV show Hee Haw mashed up and spread out along an old Ozark highway, then you’ll have an idea of what the main strip of Branson in southern Missouri looks like.
Miles and miles of all the miniature golf, bumper cars, fudge shops, custard stands and music theaters that a vacationing family could hope for.
Shannon works as a waitress in one of those places – a Branson restaurant – and says she loves being part of the action.
“I love to hear where people are coming from,” Shannon says. “You get to know someone even with five minutes of talking. Where are you from? Why are you here? You kind of get to escape.”
Branson became internationally famous in the 1990s for nightly shows by performers like singers Andy Williams and Tony Orlando and comedian Yakov Smirnoff. The town of 11,000 was hit hard during the Great Recession, but it’s bounced back and now welcomes more than 8 million tourists a year.
Yet that growth has not rubbed off on the large number of Branson workers like Shannon, who scrape by living in extended-stay motels.
At the end of the day, Shannon comes home to a musty motel room where she and her three children, ages 13, 12 and 8, live. She asked that her last name not be used to protect their privacy.
The room has a single king-size bed where they sleep together, and their kitchen consists of a mini-fridge and a microwave. Trash bags filled with clothes cover most of the floor space. In lieu of a washing machine, Shannon uses the bathtub to do the laundry.
She and her children have been staying in motels like this for the last six years.
The extended-stay motel trap that many Branson families fall into starts with the promise of a better life, according to Carla Perry, who spent years in extended-stay motels herself.
“It’s like the commercials you see. ‘Come on down,’ you know?” says Perry, who now works for the nonprofit group Jesus Was Homeless. “Family friendly, kid friendly. Nice, clean. No crime. No drugs. Beautiful town. And it is in the commercials.”
Boom and bust
As a tourist destination, Branson runs on annual cycles of boom and bust. In the summer, the hotels, restaurants and theaters can’t find enough people to fill all their low-wage job openings. But in the fall, tourism starts to dry up.
“When September comes and they’re laid off, even two people with kids don’t have enough to live on so they end up in a hotel,” Perry says.
By mid-winter, the unemployment rate exceeds three or four times the state average. With dwindling bank accounts and few options for low-cost housing, many workers wind up living hand-to-mouth in motels until the next tourist season.
“You get stuck in like this big whirlwind that’s going down the toilet,” Perry says. “And it’s just sucking you down.”
Living in a motel is considered homelessness by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and so-called “sheltered homelessness” is associated with higher lifetime risk for substance use disorders, as well as mental and chronic physical health problems.
Meth and other drug use are rampant in the motels, and the motels are notorious for domestic violence and prostitution.
For Shannon, raising children in places like this has changed the way she thinks about parenting.
“We used to go on treasure walks, where we would find a heart-shaped rock, bring it home, you know, whatever was our adventure that day.” Shannon says. “When your son picks up a needle out of the rocks, that changes quickly. Then you start talking to them about not being able to pick up anything. You get scared about whether they should even not be in your hands for fear of what they could find or see.”
At one extended-stay, volunteers for Jesus Was Homeless knock on doors to give free sack lunches to residents. They also offer residents of the motels help with things like housing, job training and health care.
The group’s director of operations, Ashley Harkness, says Jesus Was Homeless prides itself on turning around the lives of people in the depths of crisis.
“We’ve had them come in high. Prostitutes. I mean, drunk, literally on a Sunday morning,” Harkness says.
Jesus Was Homeless was founded ten years ago, and organizers say the demand for help has only grown.
In 2016, Branson’s biggest tourism year yet, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that 695 Branson kids, or about one in seven, were homeless. That’s more than at any time in the previous eight years.
Biggest tourism season yet
Even with the seemingly endless demand for workers, wages in Branson’s theaters, hotels and restaurants have barely budged in the last decade.
Harkness says employers need to offer more if they hope to make a dent in the homelessness problem.
“I think wages are important,” Harkness says. “I think the way employers treat employees is important.”
Branson city administrator Stan Dobbins acknowledges the motels are a problem and the city has recently been changing its approach to dealing with them. But when it comes to paying more, he says, employers are in a tough spot.
He notes that tourism is a fickle business, and that makes it hard for employers to promise higher wages. On top of that, because of the Affordable Care Act, many employers had to start providing health insurance, which hasn’t been cheap for them.
“Our theaters and our attractions and our businesses want to do the best they can by their employees,” Dobbins says. “But the employees have to understand the employer is running a business, and they’re trying to keep the doors open.”
On the positive side, Branson is working to become a year-round destination, which would lead to more stable, and permanent, jobs. Dobbins, however, says the real key to reducing homelessness is to attract more non-tourism businesses to set up shop. A Sam’s Club, maybe, or an Amazon warehouse, or some light industry.
But as in most of rural Missouri, that kind of investment has been hard to secure, especially after the recession.
“I think people are still scared. They want to believe,” Dobbins says. “They want prosperity, but I think they are cautious. And especially in Missouri. That’s why we are the Show-Me-State. We tend to need more of the I-need-to-see-it-before-I’m-going-to-believe-it kind of thing.”
He’s optimistic about Branson’s future, but that’s in stark contrast to many addresses in town, where a brighter future can be hard to imagine.
On a hot summer afternoon, Carla Perry greets kids playing outside Shannon’s motel, on her way to visit the family. Perry's been working overtime to help Shannon find permanent housing and a better job.
Perry says that for even the most motivated people, the stain of motel life can be hard to wash away.
“When you do go to get a job or do something different, you’re tattered. You’re broken,” Perry says. “And the smell of poverty is very relevant around here. And so it’s really hard for people to see past the outer shell to just see that person needs a chance.”
Shannon recently got a Section 8 voucher that will pay for an apartment for the next two years, though she's now having trouble finding a landlord who will accept it.
Shannon acknowledges that she and her children have struggled to find food, shelter and safety over the past few years. But she says there's one thing even more important that she never lets her kids go without.
“If I have a little hope, I’m for sure going to share it with them,” Shannon says. “They’re resilient. They’re bright, and they’re happy. But they need to hold on to that.”
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him at email@example.com