Columbia MISSOURIAN David Webber Jul 28, 2017
Guest Commentary: Death of a homeless man focuses assessment of local effort.
Last weekend a homeless man collapsed and died two days later. His name was Michael; he was 46 years old and an alcoholic.
His friend told me that the heat was too much for his worn and abused body. He had collapsed inside a familiar, friendly church, so it is unlikely that another cooling station by itself would have prevented his collapse. A cool place to sleep and live, effective treatment and an engaged life over the past five to 10 years would probably have made a difference.
Having taught public policy for more than 30 years, I have come to view the homeless as a prism for evaluating the performance of American society, reflecting our education, health, economic and social policies as well as the strength of our families, religious and social institutions. Yes, I have read books and reports about homelessness, but what I really know about the homeless I have learned from volunteering at local homeless services.
I met Michael at Room at the Inn several years ago, as did many other volunteers, many of whom have said what a nice man he was. He was. He always said his name with a spark of pride and had a gentle tenor about him, even when he had been drinking. Michael had a stable friendship with another homeless guy and I would often see them around town, sometimes arguing, usually sitting together someplace. His friend was concerned about his drinking and will miss him.
Michael was one of more than a dozen men and women I can name who have been on Columbia streets for several years. They are the chronic homeless you hear about. Only a few panhandle downtown and at major intersections. Over the past year, I know that at least two of them have gained housing due to local efforts, at least one had gained and lost housing because of serious rule violations. The rest seem to be without stable shelter.
I gave Michael a ride this past Christmas season. He was wandering on Broadway because he had missed the shuttle bus out to Fairview Methodist Church for Room at the Inn. I called to be sure there was room for him. We talked along the way. I learned he was from another part of Missouri and had been in business with his son until they both developed addictions of one kind or another. As is the case with many middle-aged homeless, he talked as if normal life just became too hard. He evidently found alcohol to be a relief.
Michael may have had plenty other opportunities to achieve a long, stable life for himself — but I doubt he did. I bet he had a caseworker at one time or another but was unsatisfied with the experience. I bet he had many misfortunes, such as losing his job and his house, and more recently his glasses or bike, that just pushed him off course.
Columbia has a scattering of non-profit organizations and volunteer organizations that aim to reduce homelessness. Michael would probably have frozen in previous winters had it not been for the Room at the Inn.
But we can do better without major sacrifice. Here are four ideas.
First, emergency and transitional housing similar to Welcome Home (limited to military veterans) need to be expanded. We naturally think that that winter is hard on the homeless but summer is not a picnic for them either. Rather than a big Room at the Inn approach, we should think of a small congregation model where a church or a warehouse can take in a guy at a time.
Second, an afternoon and weekend day center needs to be established. Turning Point, located in the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, is open weekday mornings and is often overcrowded. Such a full-time facility was proposed a few years ago, but was not built and public discussion has stalled. It seems we are waiting for a big RV rather than taking a mini-van that is immediately available.
Third, the existing casework process needs to be holistically examined. I hear from some homeless folks how great a caseworker is and I have heard from others who tell me about the bureaucratic run around, the long waits, the cancelled appointments, the frustrations and failures.
Fourth, prevention of homelessness, especially among young people, distressed families, and released prisoners, need to be assessed. An investment today will likely prevent problems tomorrow.
Compared to Springfield and Nashville, Tennessee, whose homeless services I have visited, Columbia is lacking a homeless advocate — a person or a small group — whose only interest is tirelessly asking “how can we improve the futures of our homeless citizens?”
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.
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