BRANSON, Mo. — Branson, Missouri is a tourist destination for tens of thousands of families every summer. The winter months bring colder temperatures and empty amusement parks, meaning high unemployment across the community. This year, COVID-19 has made the widespread seasonal poverty even worse.
Kevin Huddleston runs the Christian Action Ministries Food Bank in Branson and helps feed thousands of families per year. He said this year, they've handed out twice the amount of food as they did last year because so many families have been financially struggling through the pandemic.
Huddleston said the need for services has fluctuated throughout the year, skyrocketing at times and leveling out when the stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits kicked in. With winter on the horizon, he is worried for what is to come.
"I really am concerned that we are entering our season of highest demand, and typically, normally people enter this period of time with some stored back, they have some money set aside, some food set aside, to get them through the dark days of winter when our tourism season is dormant here. We don’t have that fallback this year, people are not prepared," said Huddleston.
He is also worried that the community, without a homeless shelter or affordable housing units, will see more community members on the streets than ever before.
"I think we’re likely going to see a housing problem this winter, seeing more people being homeless situationally, so we as a community are scrambling trying to do something."
The city is opening up a warming center for people to have somewhere to go to escape the frigid temperatures, but it is not an overnight place yet. Huddleston is hoping a homeless shelter will be able to open up soon.
Despite the adversity families are facing across this tourist town, Huddleston said he does have hope.
"Our financial contributions have been very good this year, much better than we’ve expected in this kind of economic situation," he said, adding that their shelves are often overstocked.
Thankfully, food supply has not been an issue. The food bank has been able to help thousands without ever running out.
Still, he says handing out food does not fix the problem. He and other community leaders said poverty in Branson needs to be addressed at the root. He is part of a group helping to build resources in the community so families can work themselves out of a constant situation of struggle. However, he is worried these solutions will not come quick enough.
"We are planning for a very dire situation this winter," he said. "We are going to practice as if that’s going to happen, and if it doesn’t, we’ll be blessed."