A few days before Thanksgiving, with a chill in the midday air beneath an ice blue sky, Steve Arnold — homeless at age 66, living inside a blue tent in the woods off the highway — was doing what he normally does on days like this.
He sat outside, perched on the windowsill of The Little General Store in Blue Springs on Woods Chapel Road. He drew on a cigarette, slate gray hoodie pulled up against the cold, bothering no one. If people want to gift him things, sure, he’d take it, say thank you. But he asks for nothing from no one and never has.
“I don’t believe in it,” he said.
That, together with his generally reserved and polite demeanor, seems to be precisely what has endeared him to his community. It is at a point now that, on the town’s Facebook page, Blue Springs Community Awareness, post after post talks about Steve.
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People worry about Steve, ask how Steve is faring, and if people want to donate to Steve.
The result, even prior to this season of giving, is Steve has received a trove of gifts: a Carhartt jacket, sleeping bag, socks, pants, shirts, rides in their cars, a shower in one resident’s home, a new tent, gift cards for food, a cot to sleep on.
“The Facebook page for Blue Springs has been blowing up about him for months,” said Sella Minker, 45, the manager of the nearby Woods Chapel QuikTrip, where Arnold is also often seen picking up trash, neatening the grounds.
As to why Arnold has so captured the community’s sentiment, Minker can only guess.
“You know I don’t know,” she said. “He’s very down to earth. He’s very quiet, very polite. He doesn’t ask people for money. Just very humble. Very thankful all the time. Gives people hugs. He’s such a sweet guy.”
Homelessness can seem such an immense and intractable problem. But Steve, this one guy people would see day in and day out, was relatable. He’s Blue Springs’ guy.
“I just ran into Steve at the Little General,” one Facebook user, Lisa Mills posted on Sunday. “I explained that I and our community cares about him. He said someone bought him a great pair of boots they must of paid $100 for them and he was beyond greatful (sic) his words not mine. And another person did his laundry for him.”
“He just kind of captured my heart,” said Amber Booker, 35, who has seen Arnold walking on the streets. On searing summer days, he’d stop inside the Firehouse Bar, 1222 N.W Woods Chapel Road, to escape the heat. Booker would go there, too.
“He would come in. A very kind man,” said waitress Erika Franke. “He’d make wonderful selections on the juke box.”
He plays music from the 1970s, she said. “He’d just come in and say, ‘Can I rest for awhile? It’s just so hot outside.’”
He’d order a drink. He’d pay his way. No hint of alcoholism, Franke said. Some people refused to sit near him for lack of showers, nor would they talk to him. “He’s quiet,” Franke said. “But if you talk to him, he’ll open up.”
What Arnold says can be a mixture of lucidity — sharp realizations about his life and circumstances — infused with regular and odd ramblings about God. About how he, Arnold, has been chosen and, on his death, will descend into hell for three-and-a-half days as part of his purification.
“Basically, a mission to hell and back,” Arnold said. “What he’s going to do is invert my soul.”
Distant family members, contacted by The Star, said Arnold’s fixation with God is longstanding and perhaps results from schizophrenia or a related mental illness. He comes from Missouri. Arnold was married once, to Anita, who died in 2005 of cancer at age 48. They had divorced long before that and shared four children together, two girls and two twin boys. Arnold is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.
He and his family once lived above Waldo Pizza when apartments there were part of a transient hotel.
“I can’t remember,” Arnold said of the last time he worked, but said it was never regular, although he collects about $700 a month in Social Security.
Until a year or more ago, Arnold lived in Grain Valley with his daughter, Felicia Keever, 37, and her husband and family.
“Then we hit hard times,” Keever said by telephone. Their finances crashed. They moved into a cheap motel off of Interstate 70, rife with bed bugs and cockroaches that at $280 a week sapped their resources even more.
“Honestly,” she said, “it just got to be too much . . . I had to move to a friend’s. He went to the woods “
Keever now lives in Ozark and works on an assembly line at a boat factory. She said her father is “harmless,” with no addictions. No criminal record comes up in Blue Springs, Jackson County or other Missouri counties. Blue Springs police, in fact, have made a special effort to alert officers who patrol the area to make note about how much Arnold is cared for and watched over.
“He just believes God will provide for him,” Keever said of her dad, adding that she is working on getting a place of her own so she might bring him to live with her again.
Even so, each day at noon, during a break from work, Keever has a standing agreement.
“I make him call me every day so I know he’s OK,” she said.
The Little General lets him use its phone. This Thanksgiving, her plan is to drive up to see him, visit her own daughter, and bring him to dinner.
When Booker, the young mom, spotted Arnold with shoes worn to shreds, she and Franke from the bar and others pitched in. They bought him the new jacket, new boots. People gave $5 and $10.
“That’s just it. He doesn’t ask for anything,” Booker said. “Me and some friends gave him $100. He started crying. He didn’t know where his next meal was coming from.”
They posted their effort on social media. Blue Springs responded. Some were negative, insisting that Arnold was homeless by choice, and did not deserve such singular consideration. He turned down offers for work. He received Social Security.
None of that matters to Rosalie McFadden, the clerk at the Little General. Age 28, a single mother of two, she gets protective when people judge Arnold harshly.
“I hear people say he doesn’t need any help. Everyone has their own story,” she said. She’s been known to snap at people — “He’s my friend” — when she hears criticism.
“Steve is just unique,” McFadden said. “I have never heard him ask anyone, ‘Do you have a dollar? Do you have a penny?’” As such, she buys him cigarettes and food.
Arnold led a visitor out to his campsite, a quarter of a mile or more into the nearby woods. His said his blue tent, nearly large enough for him to stand in, was given to him by a woman named Linda. Prior to that, he stayed in a red pup tent that lay twisted in a heap nearby.
“Once she gave me that tent, it’s like moving from a doghouse to a man cave,” he said.
Linda also bought him a cot. The inside of the tent held a mess of plastic bags filled with clothes. A tiny end table stood at the end of the cot. A small chair was angled nearby. Someone else gave him a carpet to line the bottom of the tent.
Because Arnold believes that God is involved in all he does — “When I quit smoking, I’ll die within a week,” he believes — he says the kindness he has received from others is part of God’s plan.
“It’s something God has taught me that he’s the one that’s moving them,” he said. “They have that compassion, which comes from God. So he is the one that moves them to give me stuff, because they feel compelled to. So I accept it, because I always give them my hearty thank you.”
He would later say, “I do appreciate all they do.”
Just outside the Little General, Chloe Radford, 46, of Blue Springs sat in her car, door propped open, as Arnold sat nearby. Radford and her 12-year-old daughter, she said, also recently became homeless. “We had to flee and get away from where we were at,” she said.
They’ve been sleeping in friends’ living rooms, moving from place to place. Before their own homelessness, they saw Arnold on the street.
“I’ve seen him around town,” she said, “picking up messes on the side of the road so that maybe nobody gets a flat tire on it, and cans and just litter. It just seems like he is trying to also do something to help out our community. He is a very kind man. I’ve just felt drawn to him.”
When they had money to give, they brought him shoes, gave him money for sandwiches.
“We’re all brothers and sisters in this world,” Radford said. “And we kind of got to take care of each other when we can. It’s every little kindness. Every little thing helps. We all got to be here for each other.”