Homeless in Hannibal: Following the footsteps of the homeless

We've had a mild winter so far this year, but it's the season homeless people dread the most.

Unlike big cities, you don't see people sleeping on the streets in Hannibal. But they are there, and growing in numbers.

Freezing winter days like this are some of the hardest for Joe, who's been living on the streets of Hannibal for 20 years.

"It's a hard life and it makes us old men before our time," Joe said.

Joe calls this town his home, and roves it constantly looking for abandoned buildings, bridges and caves for protection from the biting wind.

"You know that there is no place for you to go and get warm, so you have to prepare yourself a long ahead of time," Joe said. "The Hannibal police department doesn't like you building fires. We have to keep warm. What do you want to do -- run around and pick up dead bodies?"

Dumpsters serve as his refrigerators most days, but it's meals at area food kitchens like this that give him a chance to come in out of the cold to thaw out his freezing fingers.

When he picks up his coat to leave, he gathers up everything that he values in this world.

Joe has to keep moving to keep warm and knows the end result if he doesn't. He chokes up as he talks about his friend who froze to death one winter. It's all about survival on the streets, and many times the friends he calls his family don't make it.

"It's been 20 years I've been out here. I've buried six and there was no reason for any of them to go.That's one of the reasons why I'm trying to stop doing this because I'm getting too old to. I can't bury no more people," Joe said.

There are many places Hannibal's homeless make their shelter. One of the most common is along the Mississippi River, near the old amphitheatre.

On our tour of areas inhabited by Hannibal's homeless, we just missed some people who built a fire to keep warm the night before. We found their remnants on the concrete slab that used to be the old amphitheatre. Others take shelter in the old stone city buildings nearby. In another building, Joe recalls a week in which eight or more people lined up their sleeping bags and blankets and slept on a dirt floor.

Another stone building nearby holds evidence of someone living here right now. This tarp is being used to keep the muddy floor from seeping into sleeping bags. Joe says one summer 40 people called this area home, many of them transients who hitchhiked or hopped trains to get here. But Joe says others are just people from around here who are down on their luck and hit the bottom before coming back.

"They're not drunks, bums. I know 50 people in this town who are good productive citizens and none of these normal citizens would know that they were homeless," Joe said.

While homelessness is on the rise in Hannibal, there are many local organizations that are stepping in to help. See that story Wednesday on KHQA's late news at 10.