We can do more to care for the homeless in the winter

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN January 28, 2022

Thank you to the concerned citizens who gathered at the Wabash Station last Friday evening to protest the city’s policy of only opening Wabash as an emergency shelter when the temperature is forecast to be 9 degrees and below.

Thank you, also, to the city officials who late Friday afternoon raised the threshold to 15 degrees. I was relieved it was a peaceful gathering; an occupation of Wabash would have been counterproductive.

The need for winter emergency shelter has not been resolved, however. Wabash’s capacity of 13 is much too small, staffing is inadequate and availability is unpredictable. More citizen interest, letters to council members and protests will apparently be necessary.

Many of the protesters last Friday were volunteers forming a group that cares for the 30 to 50 homeless campers who prefer camping to using existing shelters, such as Harbor House or Room at the Inn. These shelters are likely to be full on particularly cold nights.

These volunteers distribute clothing and hygiene items; shoes and coats; tents and sleeping bags; and warm meals several times a week throughout the year. One group has operated for four years and members say they provide “mutual aid.” They provide support, coffee and oatmeal at 6 a.m. when the homeless campers need to leave the Wabash Station. Why do they need to leave Wabash at 6 a.m. anyhow?

I have been observing Columbia’s homeless services network for more than a decade. There are some mighty success stories, such as Love Columbia; Welcome Home, for veterans; True North; and a youth shelter, but progress for an adequate day center and overnight shelter has been painfully slow — even before COVID-19 hit.

Compared to several cities I have visited, Columbia lags behind in homeless services and more importantly in creativity and imagination. Nashville, Tennessee and Springfield, for example, have more varied services and have had them for several decades. Why hasn’t Columbia made more progress?

For starters, I suggest that too many people who are somewhat interested in “working on this issue” just didn’t get the job done. While Veterans United’s donations are helpful, city officials and nonprofit leaders need to lead the way. So far, such leadership has not been up to the task.

The proposed Opportunity Center, whenever it opens, however it is developed, will not eliminate the need for winter emergency shelter, because not all homeless people feel safe and comfortable in a shelter. Just last week, I observed a man standing in line at Room at the Inn who was distressed with the confusion and procedures. After a few minutes he asked for his backpack back, saying “I can’t do this, I have to go.” Fortunately, a staff member stepped up, saw his distress, talked with him, and drove him to an outside space to fend for himself.

I have seen several men leave Room at the Inn and local lodging in the middle of the night. A few years ago, as I was leaving the Columbia Public Library on a snowy evening, the security officer was dealing with a homeless man who had no place to go, as the Room at the Inn and Harbor House were full. I recognized him as Carl I asked the officer what I could do and was told to “give him a sleeping bag and drop him in a parking garage.” That’s what I did, but I felt lousy.

At last week’s Columbia City Council meeting, Dirk Burhans spoke about camps in Columbia and why establishing “sponsored camps” would improve homeless services.  Download PDFPDF of public comments made by Dirk Burhans at Columbia City Council meeting on Jan. 18.

Burhans described the dangers faced by unsheltered people living in local camps. Since Dec. 8, three homeless camps have been evicted. He presented an honest assessment of the dangers and ills of homeless camps and requested the city create a permanent, sanctioned encampment for unsheltered people who are unable or unwilling to go to shelters.

A city-sponsored camp could be located on several acres of vacant land that Columbia already owns. At a minimum, it should provide a dumpster, water and restrooms. A car camp should also be established to increase security.

Some cities have established tent camps so the homeless can return to the same area every night. Secure storage of personal items is often provided. Homeless camps often tend to become communities where campers become aware of each others and acknowledge their space.

While sponsored camps would increase the quality of life of both the homeless and surrounding neighbors, temporary emergency shelter is needed immediately and certainly before the Opportunity Center is established. Using the small Wabash Station is a solution of last resort. The city should consider the Armory, the first floor wing of the ARC or the Columbia Agriculture Park’s market pavilion for a temporary emergency shelter. Download PDFPDF of public comments made by Dirk Burhans at Columbia City Council meeting on Jan. 18.

Based on support for Room at the Inn, conversations with local citizens and the long volunteer lists at local homeless services, I submit that most Columbia residents would choose to support a winter emergency shelter. Leadership is the missing requirement. Sometimes leadership comes from elected officials, sometimes from nonprofit organizations and sometimes it springs from protestors speaking for the folks they serve.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

David Lile’s retirement is a loss for Columbia

David Webber, January 22, 2022

“Columbia Morning with David Lile” on KFRU/1400AM radio will be no more as of Feb. 18. It is a loss for our community.

Lile is simply irreplaceable. His pleasant manner, unselfish caring for all of Columbia, depth of knowledge and breadth of interests make him more than an engaging radio interviewer and host — they make him a source of tranquility in what is often a confusing and hurried world.

Lile has worked for KFRU since 1990, broadcasting in its present format for the past 13 years. 

“Columbia Morning” is a pleasant, information-rich way to start the day. It’s more than just the news and the weather; it is a community forum that introduces listeners to new ideas and interesting facets of Columbia. Mayor Brian Treece called Lile “the conscience of Columbia.” Many people would agree.

As best as I can remember I’ve done three in-studio interviews and at least five phone interviews with Lile, talked with him several times around town and have seen him numerous times as he emceed community events and political discussions.

He immediately projects a calming tone and displays a knowledge of the subjects that elevates the level of the interview. He asks thoughtful, engaging questions that made being interviewed a learning experience. He clearly does his homework. He makes three hours on air five days a week sound so easy.

I particularly noted one comment he made about his career: “Everything I’ve done at work has been important to me, and I’ve had such great opportunities at work.” That combination of earnestness and humility will return years of job satisfaction after he retires.

I am uncertain about the skills required to host a successful radio show, but Lile’s sense of timing and his organizational abilities must be extraordinary. Doing an in-studio interview I watched the second hand on the big wall clock sweep toward the top of the hour while we conversed about a side topic and just at the last second he went on-air welcoming listeners in.

Lile’s organization of information and ability to multi-task are outstanding. On any one morning he might do a phone interview with a significant national author, chat with a local council member, jibber jabber with the sports guy about the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl III, comment on an article from a national publication, administer a daily “quicky quiz,” read some upcoming local birthdays and engage with a community organization leader about an upcoming event.

Lile’s moderating a League of Women Voters debate, announcing a sporting event or introducing a music concert were equally engaging and informative. His knack for sharing additional information in a timely manner is unmatched. Last fall, he announced the SEC Cross County Championship meet at the new City of Columbia-MU Gans Creek Cross Country Course while blending historical information on the course, the teams and the individual runners with updates on the race, all with style and authority that I suspect was enriching to coaches and runners, as well as the spectators.

Granted, each university provided Lile with information about their team, but he organized and made it relevant at the right moment.

I have been mentally preparing for Lile’s retirement since I wrote last month about the hole left by Hank Waters’ death.

I wrote then “From my limited perspective, the only person who comes near to filling Hank’s role of an owl looking over the vast local terrain is David Lile on KFRU radio.” The two men, and the roles they played, in Columbia are similar. Both had a calming demeanor, were able to listen to other people and were trusted filters of information.

The first major event where Lile and Waters will be missed is the April municipal elections. Regardless of COVID-19, there will be election forums sponsored by largely single interest organizations, attended mostly by like-minded members of those organizations. There won’t, however, be a widely available interview or reaction by an experienced local observer intended to inform local voters.

In his retirement announcement Wednesday, Lile mentioned two emotions that I submit are common for retirees (1) a sense of selfishness that he is leaving and (2) looking forward to new adventures.

Lile will find that his lifelong accomplishments and friendships will bring him years of satisfaction. His energy and curiosity will find more opportunities than he could possibly pursue. In that spirt, I would make one request of him: Please find a way to make all those interviews, especially the oral histories with Columbia leaders, permanently accessible to the future through the Columbia Public Library or the Boone County History and Culture Center.

After Feb. 18, instead of tuning into “Columbia Morning” I expect that I, like others, will either watch national television news or read online news from favored sources, but I won’t be learning about upcoming community events, or hearing from a local civic leader or listening to a trusted, eloquent voice with a rich, local historical background comment on the events of the day.

Congratulations, David, and best wishes for continuing your journey of exploring and service.

vid Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

We’ve lost control of our politics

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 16, 2022

“The Great Hack” is a 2019 Netflix documentary about how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to target “persuadable” voters in toss-up states to win the 2016 presidential election for Donald Trump.

“The Great Hack” is not about Trump — he is hardly mentioned. It could have been about almost any campaign. While I recall many of the details of those events during the media’s coverage of the Mueller investigation, seeing it all again in under two hours was a bit overwhelming.

The film retraced the threat of big data for undermining our political system. We citizens have lost control of campaigns and elections, and thereby, our democracy. My reaction is mostly resignation and sadness.

Realizing that nothing significant became of the Mueller investigation weakens my view of the ability of the political system to take corrective action. Moreover, the current congressional debate about voter suppression seems old school; data mining for the purpose of invisibly influencing the election is new school. Few members of Congress seem to understand the difference.

“The Great Hack” captures how the many strides in computer technology and data analysis now allow a massive, global expansion of a new type of social manipulation that is reshaping the world in a particular image. Traditional advertising for almost a century has influenced our choice of soap, toothpaste and beer, but now the stakes are global and political.

The documentary focuses on David Carroll, former business development director for Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, and British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr. Their stories interweave to expose the work of Cambridge Analytica in the politics of various countries, including the United Kingdom’s Brexit campaign and the 2016 United States elections.

Kaiser, a former intern for the Obama campaign, comes up with the idea to work for Republican candidates in the 2016 election, because, unlike the Democrats, they were more risk takers with the truthfulness of what they used online.

At its peak, Cambridge Analytica, held up to 5,000 data points about each of the Americans in its databases. This information was used to paint profiles of different types of voters, with an eye to identifying and later manipulating “the persuadable,” i.e. on-the-fence voters. Using the collected data, Cambridge Analytica set out to create fear and/or apathy to achieve the results of the political parties that hired them.

The sharpest application of Cambridge Analytica’s method described in the “The Great Hack” was in Trinidad and Tobago, where social media was flooded with catchy graphics and slogans designed to foster apathy in those likely to vote for the candidate not hired by Cambridge.

The “Do So” campaign made it seem cool not to vote at all, so many young people did not. As with the American campaign, the bombardment of ads and demonizing and false news stories was relentless.

Political parties for years have collected information about voters. In 1972, I worked for one of the parties, going door-to-door with hopes of having a conversation with voters and scoring them 1 (never) through 5 (certain) on the likelihood of supporting that party. Even back then, voters scoring 3 and 4 would receive extra attention, and 1 and 2’s would be forgotten about.

On one hand, all that Cambridge Analytica did was to take that to a much higher level, sort of like the difference between a stream and the ocean. Not only do parties and candidates have access to more more precise data, they have sophisticated ad campaigns of false information that only experts can verify.

Most of us are passively cooperating in allowing data harvesters to use our personal data, which allows political manipulation to thrive.

Just last week, I watched another documentary titled the “The Secret Lives of Cruises.” The next day, I received emails from three cruise lines inviting me to sail away with them. This invisible and unauthorized use of consumer’s personal data has been widespread for more than a decade.

“The Great Hack” raises questions about political consultant responsibility and our own ability to be manipulated. While Cambridge Analytica did lie to cover up its involvement with Facebook and Wikileaks, they did not actually steal the personal data. They simply made good use of data that was “unprotected.”

Kaiser is the major focus of “The Great Hack” and has written a memoir, at the age of 32, “Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again.” She has started the Own Your Data Foundation to promote the right of citizens to own their personal data. My intent is not to criticize, or to defend, her but to identify how her ambition, her values and her opportunism should serve as a caution for protecting American democracy.

The most direct path to preventing more political manipulation is to make our personal data our personal property. That way internet companies could not track our interactions without our knowledge and permission.

Had he not gotten involved in Jan. 6 activities, it is possible that Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, and his book “The Tyranny of Big Tech,” might have spearheaded congressional action to consider ways to prevent information technology firms use of personal data. As it is, American political polarization goes on as threats to democracy persist.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

The ‘least’ of us get the least service

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN January 7, 2022

Columbia City Council has an awesome responsibility evaluating responses to its request for proposals for “Comprehensive Homeless Services Center Planning.”

Carrying out that plan could require several million dollars of the $25 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to address local homelessness

While I like talking and teaching about million-dollar policies and programs, the focus should be on the men, women and children freezing in the cold. Homelessness results from years of failures of schools, housing, families, rehabilitation and the economy.

This week I watched several men who couldn’t sip coffee because they were shivering almost violently, then sat next to a scared woman in court whose boyfriend is charged with domestic assault in their tent and stopped by Wabash Station several times to see that everyone sleeping on the cold floor had at least a blanket.

One of the challenges facing the council is talking about the homeless population in a comprehensive, honest way. It is simply easier to think and talk about paving streets and improving bus service than it is to figure out how to responsibly and effectively aid the homeless community without encouraging dependence.

Misinformation doesn’t help. Last month, I talked with a citizen in a parking lot who told me that the homeless could sleep in any school or public building they choose. It took me a few minutes to figure out he was referring to warming centers that the city occasionally publicizes. Several times this winter, local television and Facebook postings provided lists of warming stations that are available in Columbia. None of them mention that most of them are open during regular hours, hence are closed on major holidays. Two that I frequent, the Columbia Public Library and the Activity and Recreation Center (ARC), were closed for an extra day around each of the recent holidays.

The original source of the misleading information is the seasonal news release from the City of Columbia that is not wrong, it is just not right because it buries in the middle of the paragraph that few people read the words “during the building’s normal business hours.”

In other words, there is nothing special here because these buildings are always open during normal business hours. The problem is media outlets use the memo without any in-depth reporting, with the inevitable conclusion being that the venues named are currently opened. The result is that some citizens think all homeless people can use all the buildings all the time.

Something that is new is the city keeping Wabash Station open from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. when the temperature is forecast to go below 9 degrees. By my count, Wabash has been open four times so far this winter, each night sheltering about 20 men and women sleeping on the cold floor. The station becomes a community center of sorts with volunteers stopping to check on particular people or dropping off food and clothing.

While it would be nice if the threshold temperature were 15 degrees and that cots were provided, I applaud the city for this effort. I hope no public official or citizens gets the impression that Columbia’s homeless problem has been “solved” by keeping Wabash Station open.

A video on Youtube shot this week shows a desperate woman lying in the street. She evidently had been directed to Wabash Station before it was open. 

I have written about this general misunderstanding problem previously, due to my concern for the lack of public hygiene in downtown Columbia. I must have shared more than 100 times my observation that there are no public drinking fountains downtown except for Flat Branch Park, and most people’s first response is “Oh, that can’t be true.” The cynic in me is waiting for a city PR memo that reads “water is available everywhere a drinking fountain can be found” without mentioning there are none between Flat Branch Park, Douglass Park and Stephens Lake Park.

The homeless, the poor, the needy often get low quality services because they lack political representation and economic power. Whether it’s the public defender system, local jails and prisons that are cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, public transportation, substance addiction or low paying jobs, civic leaders often do not have a comprehensive understanding of the problems because they haven’t personally experienced them.

Consequently, public officials generally rely on news reports or agency heads to tell them about these problems. Turning Point, Room at the Inn and other service providers need more City Council attention and better governance to insure they are maximizing their efforts to help all homeless guests.

In reviewing the requested RFP, City Council members should take at least the following actions:

1. Keep a clear understanding of the real problem in their minds. The goal shouldn’t be just to “do something.” It should be to direct service providers to reduce street homelessness.

2. Ask agencies for real impacts with real delivery dates. Agencies should identify new services and procedures — not push the homeless off to already existing warming centers.

3. The goal should not be to deliver services, it should be to move the homeless to self-sufficiency. Delivering services is a means to an end.

4. Require performance evaluation of recipients and require a public governance board to oversee homeless service providers.

However the City Council decides to contract for comprehensive homeless services, the council is not at the end of its responsibilities. Public commitment for homeless services has been demonstrated by more than a decade of volunteering and support for Room at the Inn, Harbor House, Turning Point and other nonprofits. The Council needs to step up make the investment of federal funds and commit themselves to annual review of local homeless service providers.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Looking back at 2021, forward to 2022

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN< January 1, 2022

It’s been a long 2021. Days and weeks, even months, passed quickly, but the year seems long.

President Joe Biden’s inauguration, especially Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” felt like an early civic spring breeze interrupting our continuing flood of political polarization and COVID-19 concerns.

COVID-19 dominated the news and our daily lives with a summer surge, the delta variant, and another surge, the omicron variant, ending the year. A lot happened in 2021, but with few final decisions.

Biden hit the ground running with the most diverse Cabinet in history and solid inauguration address about fighting for all Americans. He had strong approval ratings for six months that dipped in August after our exit from Afghanistan, something his predecessors talked about but did not do. Few people understand, or even give much attention to U.S. involvement and policy goals in Afghanistan, but the chaotic withdrawal made for bad television.

The 2020 Olympics, held in 2021, in Tokyo seems a long time ago. The most memorable Olympic story might be gymnast Simone Biles confronting the “twisties” that caused her to withdraw from an event but brought international attention to athletes’ mental well-being.

Because of cost, size and competing international athletic competitions, global public interest in the Olympic movement might have peaked.

Undoubtedly the most significant historical event of 2021 was the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the counting of the electoral votes favoring Biden. To date, 727 participants have been criminally charged with about 50 being sentenced already. Nearly a year later, a House committee is slowly investigating the events leading up to that tragic event.

The Department of Justice has yet to announce that it will conduct its own investigation. The role of Donald Trump has yet to be determined. Public interest and concern have become more partisan as time goes by. It drags on and on.

Derek Chauvin’s conviction in April for killing George Floyd in Minneapolis maintained public order. It’s likely there would have been massive civic unrest if the outcome to the nationally watched trial had been acquittal. Similar results in two other nationally covered trials — Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Daunte Wright in Minnesota — may mean that the criminal justice system performs well when there is high public interest and attention.

An immediate political impact of the peaceful 2021 summer may be the election of new Black mayors in New York City, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Kansas. This good news for race relations should outlast the artificial political debate about critical race theory.

COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements are still centers of political acrimony, almost two years since the pandemic began. Local school boards are often embedded in nasty confrontations between mask advocates and opponents. The reading and math debates of previous years have been replaced by arguments about social distancing, home schooling and the lack of substitute teachers and school bus drivers.

Congress passed three major acts to counter the economic impact of COVID-19. A fourth, Biden’s $1.9 trillion “Build Back Better” bill, a spending plan for “soft infrastructure,” is currently pending in the Senate.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act (2020) provided direct stimulus to taxpayers, small businesses and local and state governments, followed by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act and the “bipartisan infrastructure bill” that commits another $1 trillion to highways, bridges and broadband internet. Adding all this up totals $7.1 trillion of new federal spending, minus about half trillion in new taxes, in an economy estimated to be about $23 trillion.

Depending on your understanding of the economy, a 30% stimulus is either a great accomplishment that prevented a pandemic recession or it has laid the ground for inflation to bloom.

The annual economic news is conflicting. At the national macroeconomic level, growth in the Gross Domestic Product is expected to be 5.6% and the unemployment rate may decline to 4.2%, both solid numbers, and the stock market is trending ever upward. But gas at the pump is more than $3 per gallon, the supply chain backlog is affecting both small and major purchases, and small businesses and restaurants are closing because of inability to hire and retain workers. Wages are stagnant despite labor shortages and college graduates are facing huge debt.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide at least two controversial decisions, one involving Mississippi’s abortion restrictions, the other involving state aid to private schools in Maine. The political impact of each could exceed their legal impact.

It’s likely that the most watched political event in the upcoming year will be the national midterm elections in November. With the historical trend since World War II of the president’s party usually losing about 27 House seats, it’s likely that Biden will be dealing with a Republican-controlled House and Senate the second half of his term. In 2010, President Barack Obama’s party lost 59 House seats, while in 1994 Bill Clinton’s Democratic party lost 54 House seats.

We all talk about the increasingly volatile weather, but nobody does anything about it. Droughts, floods, wildfires, ice storms and tornadoes disrupted lives in many regions of the country in 2021 as we fiddle about the future of coal rather than speeding up the development of renewable energy. Unstable weather patterns introduce more uncertainty at a time when anxiety and depression have been increasing.

The year 2021 may have felt so long because of three fronts — the economy, Trump’s future and the pandemic. The past year is likely to have been the calm before the 2022 storm.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.