Spring homeless lessons

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN May 14, 2022

Homelessness is an all-year thing, but spring brings a relief knowing men and women who are without stable housing made it through winter. I remember in 2009, at Missouri United Methodist Church, there was a short impromptu prayer service to mark the successful season of what became Room at the Inn.

A homeless woman, Liza, who I have seen on the streets within the past year, stood up and spoke strongly and eloquently, thanking the volunteers who helped that year see “that we didn’t lose anyone this winter.”

To the best of my knowledge, “we didn’t lose anyone this winter” thanks to the staff and volunteers at Loaves and Fishes, Turning Point, Harbor House, and Room at the Inn but also to an informal network of volunteers that now goes by the name CoMo Mobile Soup Kitchen.

The CoMo Mobile group pretty much staffed the emergency shelter at Wabash Station, caring for the 15 to 30 people who stayed inside Wabash during the extreme cold and about 10 people currently in that area.

CoMo Mobile Soup Kitchen also regularly serves food and provides necessities to several homeless camps around Columbia where they serve 65 to 80 people per day at least twice a week.

Last week at Loaves and Fishes I helped a guest whom I will call Eddie re-wrap his frostbitten fingers that had been treated and were waiting to be partially amputated.

When we finished with the gauze and tape, I asked him if I could take a photo to post on social media. He approved. I’m glad I did.

I was in a similar situation in March 2020, when I was walking around downtown and I came upon a guy I will call Dan who showed me his frostbitten, damaged, toeless foot that had just received amputation.

I learned some details of gangrene and infections. I asked for permission to take a photo. He approved, but I quickly had second thoughts and withdrew my request because I felt it was an invasion of personal boundaries.

Over those two years I regretted passing up the opportunity to share publicly what frostbite does to some of Columbia’s homeless people.

When I posted a photo of Eddie’s damaged fingers on Facebook, immediately I received a response from a person active in the CoMo Mobile Soup Kitchen group, telling me they have a medical team who had treated him previously and would follow up with him after amputation. Indeed, they did follow up a few days ago.

A second benefit of posting the photo of Eddie’s fingers is informing Columbia about issues the homeless face.

Often citizens think that once a program is started, the problem is solved. Several people reacted saying, “I thought you provided gloves and handwarmers.”

Another said, “Maybe Wabash should be open more.” We often see panhandlers and homeless people waiting at Wilkes Boulevard Methodist Church for Turning Point and Loaves and Fishes, but few directly see people experiencing a drug or alcohol episode. Same with frostbite and insect bites.

Loaves and Fishes is a loosely knit group of volunteers who prepare and distribute an evening meal in the cold, in the rain or in the 95-degree heat 364 days a year.

There were few screw-ups during the pandemic.

I’ve talked often with a guy I met at Loaves and Fishes, I’ll call him Tim, who should have had better housing for at least seven years, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to jump through the hoops. He is headed toward better housing.

Homeless and housing caseworkers can recite program lingo and figures, but it doesn’t always get through to the right person at the right time.

All I did was reinforce a family member’s suggestion of who he should talk with. It was so simple, but it made a difference.

Several homeless service groups let by Randy Cole of the Columbia Housing Authority are currently preparing a plan to use federal money for an emergency shelter of one form or another.

We need suitable, well-located facilities to serve as a day center, soup kitchen, and emergency shelter. We also need more public hygiene facilities downtown and sanctioned campsites for homeless citizen who don’t want to go to shelters for one reason or another.

Whatever plans for future homeless services develop in deciding how to allocate $25 million of American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funding, it is essential that volunteer opportunities and responsibilities be maintained.

Caring for the homeless and the hungry is a fundamental tenet of most Americans’ religious backgrounds and should not be outsourced to publicly funded agencies.

Caring for the homeless and hungry expands ordinary citizens’ understanding of what some people end up without housing to begin with.

Due to housing shortages and loss of low skill jobs, homelessness will always be with us despite admirable attempts at reducing addictions, eliminating family instability, providing medical services, and organizing job training.

In fact, because of national changes, I expect Boone County homelessness will probably be higher 2025 than it currently is. We need a variety of shelters (e.g. RATI, sanctioned campaign, small houses), but we also need groups of caring volunteers to provide and share food and to interact with homeless people in Columbia.

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.

Distributing socks provides street-level view of community

David Webber, February 12, 2022

Bombas, an international company, advertises, “Buy a pair of our socks and we will donate a pair to the homeless.” Indeed it does. I’ve received 5,000 pairs last year and 14,000 pairs so far this season that I’ve distributed around Columbia. It’s likely I can receive twice as many next year — if I have a plan.

Two years ago, my former Mizzou student Doug Cowan, now president and CEO of Community Services League of Independence, posted on Facebook that he had received thousands of Bombas socks to distribute to social services agencies in Missouri and Kansas.

I replied that I am ”just a volunteer” at several homeless services in Columbia, but I would take responsibility for distributing 500 pairs, although I had no idea how I would distribute more than 100.

He replied, “Heck, if you drive all the way over here, you might as well take 5,000 pairs.” Against my better judgment, I accepted that challenge.

Through my homeless volunteering, I know that socks are needed because they easily wear out, get lost, get forgotten and become wet. I’ve seen lots of feet in shoes and sandals, even in the winter, without socks and needing attention.

Socks may seem trivial, but they are not. In addition to the part socks play in protecting human comfort and safety, the biblical story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is not lost on me.

A minivan can hold 5,000 socks if you break open the last few boxes and shove them into any open spaces. A home garage can hold 20 boxes at 250 pairs per box, if you don’t have exercise equipment and a lawn mower.

This past year’s 14,000 pairs required more space. My first instinct was to rent a storage shed to hold them. I thought if there is one person in town who could find a better solution, it would be Jane Williams at Love Columbia.

I called her; she said, “Give me a day or two to find a solution.” She arranged with Memorial Baptist Church to store socks in an empty classroom that wasn’t in use because of fewer churchgoers due to COVID-19.

Turning Point was an obvious starting point to receive a couple hundred pairs, as was Room at the Inn and Harbor House. I was uneasy with dropping off boxes of socks to organizations with hopes the socks would automatically end up on feet. I didn’t want to be stingy, but I did want to be a good steward of a limited resource.

Then I thought of children’s services. I Googled, emailed and learned about Boys and Girls Club, Rainbow House and Nourish. When I dropped socks off, I asked the staff about their organization, their clientele and how they were dealing with COVID-19. Several wanted me to fill out a donor form, and I explained, “I’m just the distributor; I am not the donor.”

I knew to contact “Everybody Eats” at Thanksgiving, an activity started by former city council member Almeta Crayton and continued by Powerhouse Community Development. This was a great find because I learned about that organization’s role in providing social services for groups often overlooked.

I came upon a flier that Operation Safe Winter was having a camping equipment distribution at Flat Branch Park on a November Sunday morning. Several hundred pairs of socks looked small next to the 50 tents and stacks of sleeping bags donated by a local sports store.

Socks were taken with gratitude by people who had a hard winter ahead. That project introduced me to several people who have been feeding homeless campers for several winters and have been activists for keeping Wabash Station open on cold nights.

Had it not been for socks, I would not have become aware of many unrecognized individuals who support the homeless such as the volunteers at Loaves and Fishes as well as Room at the Inn.

About 25 years ago, I learned that many elementary teachers provide a change of clothes for students who need them. So I distributed socks to several schools where I was welcomed by their principals and given a tour of their clothing storage rooms. Many individuals and organizations make efforts to help students who can use extra food and warmer clothes.

I distributed socks to True North, United Way, City of Refuge and Catholic Relief Services for newly-arriving Afghan refugees and to the Salvation Army and Voluntary Action Center to add to their Christmas packages. Socks give me a reason to learn more about these organizations.

Perhaps my biggest surprise came when I replied to posts in a Facebook group called “Working Together to Improve Columbia” from three women who were collecting clothes and food that they were distributing to people in need. I arranged to drop off several hundred pairs of socks in a safe, public place and learned about their efforts. 

The most memorable contacts socks provided are the approximately 500 pairs I handed directly to men and women at Loaves and Fishes and on the streets of Columbia.

One familiar guy told me, “Yeah, I like those socks. I’m wearing them today.” Sometimes I heard “Can I have another pair for my friend?” One guy accepted a pair as he pulled up his pant leg to reveal he had no socks and said, “Thanks.” I’ve seen Bombas socks in their backpacks and on their cots in Room at the Inn.

Socks are minor compared to warm coats, a strong backpack and a place to live. But distributing socks can put you in touch with people we often see and whom many Columbians want to “do something” for, but don’t know what to do.

You’ll be changed by being in close contact with the homeless. You won’t be as patient with the status quo. You will better understand why several homeless advocates spoke passionately, and very harshly, about Wabash Station at the city council meeting last week. As for me, I’m better suited for distributing socks.

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.

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.

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.

Small, effective efforts suggested as ways to help panhandlers in Columbia (a follow-up)

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, November 20, 2021

Last week’s column describing my conversations with 10 local panhandlers garnered lots of reactions and suggestions for supporting homeless and hungry people. On Facebook, in emails, in person and on local radio, people expressed appreciation for the column, asking appropriate questions and making suggestions for helping panhandlers.

A limitation of my project is that I spoke with only 10 people, and they were people flying signs by themselves. While I talked with three people in the Clark Lane area, I did not talk with any of the group of homeless people who often hang out at the Highway 63/Interstate 70 underpass. I did not see them panhandling, and they were not easily approachable.

For me, the two most important takeaways from my conversations are:

  1. Panhandlers are older and more local than the stereotype of young men “passing through on I-70.”
  2. The lack of familiarity with homeless services despite their need for ID, job assistance and even food.

I don’t take this as a fatal criticism of local homeless service organizations. I recognize that some homeless people, like housed people, would rather go it alone, or they don’t know how to cope with social service organizations. Abuse, rejection, and trauma are potential long-lasting reasons.

A few people’s reactions asked if assisting panhandlers is a good idea. Their concern is that helping panhandlers will attract similar people to Columbia, and it would increase panhandlers’ dependence on help rather than encouraging independence. These are reasonable concerns. On the other hand, a little help in a time of need is a mighty tool for improving society and getting people back on their feet. At the same time, let’s increase affordable housing and mental health care with the goal of reducing panhandling. I expect that several of the 10 panhandlers have child care or child support responsibilities.

Ironically, the day after my op-ed was published, I was defrauded by a woman in a grocery store parking lot. She asked me for $20 to pay a locksmith because she had locked her keys and phone in her car. She showed me a car she said was hers and claimed she returned to Columbia to bury her father who had died of COVID-19. She answered all my questions in a persuasive fashion. I helped her out. Two days later I watched the same woman approach three people at the public library parking lot before I interceded, and she fled the scene. The next day there were at least 25 posts on Facebook describing a similar setup. She may have needed the money, but her story did not add up.

I felt cheated. I felt used. No one likes to be misled out of their financial resources. It happens. I suspect, but I have no evidence, that the dollar volume of fraud by political and social campaigns, and by illegitimate businesses far exceeds that perpetrated by panhandlers.

Do we really know that all the collections by college students for cancer research or by merchants “rounding up your bill” for conservation or safety campaigns goes to its intended use? We trust people to be honest, but we know that humans often lie.

Of the 10 panhandlers I spoke with, I would be surprised if more than two or three were fundamentally lying. I prefer that it be not more than one. One of the 10, a 56-year-old man who had been in prison, told me “there is a lot of fraud out here” and named a frequent panhandler who “gets dropped off at the same traffic island and takes in more than a $100 a day.” One rotten apple can spoil the whole pie.

I don’t know how much money most panhandlers take in, but I expect it varies a good deal — some of us are better at sales than others. I revisited one of the 10 panhandlers this week and asked, “Do you get at least $50 most days?” He said, “No sir, not me.” He didn’t know about other guys, but he doubted it.

A frequent response to my column was from people who wanted to help panhandlers but didn’t know how to do so in a safe and effective way. A similar reaction focused on finding alternatives to giving them cash. I met two women the past week who prepare zip-top bags of hygiene products and small items that they distribute to people they see who might need them. Several readers suggested including the names of local homeless resources.

While not this week, several people have told me they have offered panhandlers food or water, only to see it thrown on the ground and hearing “I don’t want that, I need money.” I imagine if I had talked with 50 panhandlers, rather than 10, I may have received a couple similar reactions.

One reader wrote “Helping those in need is what we are supposed to do. Sometimes those in need are not who they seem to be. Be it a panhandler on the corner or the person standing next to you in the self-check out line, or sitting next to you at work, in the library, church or ball game. It’s hard to tell.”

I agree. There are many opportunities to help our neighbors. Be selective, do what you can comfortably do. If you think the asker on the street, or in the public library parking lot, is a fraud, nod your head and move on. If you do find a small way to help a neighbor or a stranger, however, you will certainly feel better and you may be the one who makes a difference.

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.

A snapshot of life as Columbia’s Panhandlers

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, November 12, 2021

Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week is this coming week, so I wanted to learn more about panhandling. To do so, I talked with 10 local panhandlers who were flying signs on traffic islands along Stadium Boulevard, Clark Lane and East Broadway. None were downtown.

To avoid any suspicions, I took along a recent Missourian print edition showing my face and name and explained that I was writing a column on panhandling.

I asked, “Can I talk with you?” as I approached their traffic island. All 10 said “Yes.” (My notes from my conversations with 10 panhandlers are available online.)

Initially, I was out of my comfort zone. Traffic islands are noisy, dirty and dangerous. I was uncertain about drivers and police reactions. I was in an unknown social space — it was not like volunteering at a soup kitchen.

Columbia ordinance Sec. 16-186 titled “Unlawful panhandling” permits panhandling between sunrise and sundown if it is not threatening, not on private property where the owner objects, does not interfere with foot or vehicular traffic and is not less than 20 feet from an ATM, public entrance, public toilet or pay phones.

Panhandling stirs up strong reactions. When Columbians talk to me about homelessness, panhandling quickly comes up. They ask, “How do we know they are homeless?” or say, “They will just drink it away.”

Between 1990 and 2016, there was an increase in compassion, more agreement with government support and more accepting attitudes about homelessness and using public spaces for sleeping and panhandling, according to the academic study “Changes in Public Attitudes and Perceptions about Homelessness Between 1990 and 2016,” published by the National Library of Medicine.

The 2016 sample overestimated the proportions of today’s homeless who were young and racial/ethnic minorities, while underestimating the proportions who were married, or had mental health or substance abuse problems.

The 10 individuals I spoke with ranged in age from 28 to 58, with three men age 56 or older. There were two women and eight men, one of whom was Black. The newest arrival was the only veteran in the sample who came to town last summer after living in Jefferson City. One man is from out of state, two were from surrounding counties, two others come from more distant Missouri counties, and two are dropouts of Columbia Public Schools.

None of the ten were “just passing through on I-70.” Two men flat out told me they had been in prison; two said they had lost their identification and that replacing it was hard due to COVID-19 backlogs.

While I didn’t directly ask “How much do you make out here?” several people provided clues. The most direct was a person who aims to get about $20 and “then buys cigarettes and some food and goes to my tent.”

Another said, “We don’t want to get rich out here. We just want to survive.”

One said he “likes to get $50 each day.” I asked him “Can you make $100 a day out here?” to which he replied, “Yes, it’s possible.”

One guy said he “tries to get enough to split a motel with a buddy.”

Several had bikes, but no one had a car. One stays with a friend, but most referred to having a tent. Only two seem to be part of a camp. One said he and his wife stay to themselves.

I did not recognize any of the 10 from Loaves and Fishes or the previous year’s Room at the Inn. One of my biggest surprises was their lack of familiarity with, or use of, these services. I specifically asked if they went to Turning Point, a local day center. One person, who didn’t recall the name, said they go there to shower “but that’s all.”

Several people said they don’t go because “I don’t like it there” with one saying, “there is too much drama.” One guy shared that he has PTSD problems from his prison time, and he still has a temper so he avoids places like Turning Point because if there were trouble, he would hurt somebody.

Transportation to the day center is a problem for several. Two younger men were unaware of Turning Point, so I gave them directions.

One person said she is on the streets because her car was totaled four years ago and there was no insurance. At least three said they lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, with one adding “then I made some bad personal decisions.” At least two had medical problems, with two more saying they had addictions.

I had neglected to ask two people, but the rest said the police are not a problem for them. In fact, one said “Yesterday an officer invited (him) to sit in his cruiser and asked (him) what he needed.” Another said, “Columbia police are not like other places I have been. They are friendly and don’t move you along.”

My personal assessment is that only two guys, both older, are beyond their productive years, and we should get them to age 62 to collect Social Security. Another two may have challenging disabilities. Two of the younger guys seem “ready to work” with a little direction and ID. At least two appear to have addiction issues and needed direction.

After talking briefly, I put a $5 bill in each person’s hand and thanked them for the conversation. One thanked me, saying “I’ll get me something to eat” and headed straight to the Break Time across the street.

As with most other homeless people I have met, the 10 people I chatted with this week were more positive, more pleasant, more honest about their situations than the public probably expects.

My personal recommendation is to acknowledge them. If you feel safe, talk with them. And, if you can afford it, invest a few dollars in them.

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.

Columbia has a one-shot opportunity for the $25 million American Rescue Act funds

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 10, 2021

Even if there had not been COVID-19 in spring 2020, Columbia’s three major homeless service organizations — Loaves and Fishes, Room at the Inn and Turning Point — were at near capacity and deserving of better facilities to serve high-risk citizens.

It is remarkable what volunteers, with minimal resources and space, have accomplished over the past decade in providing a day center, at least one meal a day and a seasonal safe and warm nighttime shelter. In addition, there are many other organizations, such as Love Columbia, Harbor House, True North, Rainbow House, Welcome Home and many churches and private organizations, helping people in crisis stabilize their lives. Resources and leadership are what is needed to better serve Columbia’s needs.

The Columbia City Council will have an opportunity to allocate resources and provide leadership when it decides how to spend $25 million of the American Rescue Plan Act. While there are competing uses of the one-time funds, some portion should be used to establish a long-term center for homeless and low-income housing services.

Part of the challenge facing the City Council is conducting a quality discussion of homelessness and housing problems. There are so many government entities, church and nonprofit agencies and programs — each with their own directors and advocates — that it is impossible to see the full picture linking Columbia’s lack of affordable housing and mental health services with low economic opportunity due to poor job skills and personal problems.

CoMo needs a homeless/housing czar, a point person, with the responsibility to prepare a plan — a proposal — for City Council to consider for the development of the Opportunity Center, a term I attribute to Mayor Brian Treece, that serves as a hub. This center could also house job training programs, mental health services, low-income housing, transitional housing, along with a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen.

The mayor and the city manager should select this person from the leadership of current Columbia housing or health departments. I know they are busy, but they can call on their staff to assist them. Service providers and the Voluntary Action Center can provide programmatic information, but a central facility, the Opportunity Center, needs to be a responsibility of the city.

There has been discussion, for more than seven years that I know of, among social service providers and church organizations about how to address the needs of the homeless. For one reason or another, there has been little action.

The American Rescue Plan Act’s $25 million provides an opportunity for funding, but City Council’s decision process provides an opportunity for Columbia to better understand the homeless and housing problem and reconsider how the maze of local service providers is performing. Local governments across the country face the same low income-high rent problems we do.

“Homeless” is an ambiguous descriptor. “Unsheltered” is not much better. Officially, there are about 250 “unsheltered individuals” in the Columbia area. I speculate there are more than 2,000 people, with at least 200 being K-12 students, in CoMo who have “sub-par” sleeping arrangements.

People become “homeless” for a variety of reasons, such as medical, addiction, family instability, criminal history, disabilities and economic dislocation — but housing needs are usually a common trait.

People’s experiences are unique. I’ve met a 70ish-year-old woman who was “kicked out by her daughter” and had a carload of possessions but nothing to eat. I’ve met 50-year-old women who had been passing through Columbia when her car was rear-ended and totaled on an I-70 ramp and the other driver had no insurance, so the women became truly homeless and poor. There are certainly people addicted to alcohol and drugs on the streets. There are certainly people with mental states that I don’t understand that result in their lives being unstable and unpredictable. There are people working low-income jobs that can’t provide a suitable diet for themselves and their children. There are young people, middle-aged people, older people whose living situations drastically change, and who need shelter immediately and help finding stable housing.

Columbia needs a facility that can reliably provide shelter, food, daily support services, a helping hand, necessary information and a first step toward medical and addiction rehabilitation. The city should own the physical facilities, not the service providers, because the future is uncertain. The organizations might change, other social needs may arise. The city will be here forever.

The Opportunity Center, of which a homeless facility would be one part, should be in a welcoming location with security, located on a bus line with convenient parking for volunteers. The services provided by Turning Point, a day center, require laundry and shower equipment, computers, secure storage, information resources and transportation help. Imagine a facility as big as the ARC and the new Columbia Farmer’s Market pavilion.

The Opportunity Center would arrange with current nonprofits to provide a nighttime shelter for, say, 50 to 75 people, who would provide cots and blankets and hospital-quality laundry services, some hygiene facilities, secure storage, computers, a gathering space, counseling and medical space, plus reasonable supervision and monitoring. A different nonprofit, providing at least one meal a day to more than 100 people, seven days a week, would require a high-grade kitchen facility, like many churches have, and space.

In a separate and pressing decision, City Council should support homeless services for the upcoming winter, because church sites used in previous years are not available due to COVID-19 and its ramifications. However, the City Council should not rush into adopting a short-term solution for long-term problems.

The American Rescue Plan Act’s $25 million provides what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to better address our homeless/housing problems. Getting it right is a long-term benefit for the citizens of Columbia.

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.

Reducing homelessness takes more than money

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 5, 2021

Homelessness certainly has many causes and consequences for Columbia and the rest of American society. Yes, it will always be with us, but most citizens would choose to eliminate it, or at least reduce it, if they could.

Both Columbia local papers had in-depth articles on one man’s frostbite injuries resulting in amputation of parts of both feet. I’ve known that man, Donnie, for more than five years. He personifies many of the characteristics of the chronically homeless. His situation should never have regressed as it has. He was once a carpenter/construction worker who should not have fallen through the cracks. I’m almost certain it was him I saw in a wheelchair last week while I was driving near Columbia College— he apparently has lost his lower left leg.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that on any one 2019 night, 567,715 people experienced homelessness, an increase of 14,885 people in one year. The good news is that homelessness among veterans and families with children continued to fall, declining 2.1% and 4.8%, respectively, in 2019.

Missouri had estimated 6,179 people experiencing homelessness on any given day in January 2019 — 707 of whom were family households, 488 were veterans, 477 were unaccompanied young adults (ages 18-24) and 1,062 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.

COVID-19 is certain to increase family, youth and chronic homelessness but data collection for 2020 has been limited by the pandemic. The annual January unsheltered “point-in-time” count was not required by HUD because of concern about spreading the virus, so we may never know the number of homeless people in 2020.

Homelessness in Columbia does not appear to have increased in the past year, but volunteer homeless services have seen challenges due to COVID-19. Room at the Inn has housed about the same number of guests as in previous years, despite having drastically changed its service model to include two sites — with one developing a water main break with several weeks to go — involving fewer volunteers and more fundraising. Loaves and Fishes, previously staffed with volunteer community members serving an estimated 75-90 meals each evening provided by local churches, has gone to a hybrid model supported by local businesses and restaurants.

The most precise data about the impact of COVID-19 I know of comes from Jane Williams, director of Love Columbia (previously known as Love INC). The organization directly served 289 homeless families in 2020 compared with 124 the previous year, Williams said. Additionally, it provided rent assistance for 208 families or individuals, up from 100 in 2019, and offered 2,122 coaching sessions, compared with 1,340 in 2019, to help homeless people find housing.

It is too soon to know the impact of COVID-19 on housing needs, but federal, state and local funds expended for housing assistance most likely reduced the scale of homelessness.

Because of my age, and COVID-19 risk, this winter I did not volunteer at Room at the Inn and reduced my time at Loaves and Fishes. I was able, however, to distribute 5,000 pairs of Bombas socks to nonprofit organizations directly serving low income and homeless people. Bombas advertises “buy a pair of our socks and we will give a pair to the homeless.” Indeed they did. (I am expecting to get more next year, so contact me if your nonprofit could assist next year.)

Observing homelessness in Columbia is a rollercoaster of joys and frustrations.

On one hand, Columbia does a remarkable job of caring for our unsheltered and hungry brothers and sisters through a maze of government agencies, where “houselessness” is not the top priority, and with help from nonprofit organizations, mostly churches. On the other, so many individuals and needs fall through the cracks, be they due the lack of transportation, lack of publicly available hygiene facilities, lack of dependable warming centers, lack of affordable housing, lack of adequate medical care for the uninsured or lack of shelter during the day to rest and get organized.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness coordinates homeless programs and concerns in 18 federal agencies, provides information about homelessness, and makes recommendations about reducing veteran, youth, family and chronic homelessness. The council has a convenient list of solutions — all of which could have assisted my friend Donnie who lost his toes due to frostbite. These are: Improve the importance of work, get mental health care, make housing affordable, focus on prevention, target some specific sub-populations, examine racial disparities, promote alternatives to criminalization and promote readiness for national emergencies that destroy housing,

USICH’s first recommendation seems well-targeted to Columbia: “Start at the Top: Get State and Local Leaders to Publicly Commit to and Coordinate Efforts on Ending Chronic Homelessness.”

The next step in Columbia’s addressing the needs of the homeless is to better coordinate and stabilize existing homeless services. There has been talk of, and meetings about, working toward this goal for almost a decade. It won’t happen without local leadership. Mayor Brian Treece should appoint a point person or blue-ribbon committee to coordinate and promote existing homeless services and programs. There will be more people like Donnie coming along in future years, but they should have better outcomes because Columbia leaders finally lead on this issue.

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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.

Columbia should support homeless as another winter season begins

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, November 20, 2020

“A Night at the Shelter” was wonderfully directed by Caryl Bryan and Nora Dietzel five years ago this week. With a dedicated and energetic cast portraying the lives of 12 homeless folks and four shelter volunteers, the two standing room only performances served several non-theatrical functions.

While the purpose was to humanize both the homeless and the people who volunteer to serve them during what was National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, the event inadvertently brought together hundreds of members of the Columbia community who were concerned with, and some actively involved in improving, the lives of the unsheltered.

I wrote the play based largely on observing a season, during 2012, of a Room at the Inn that was located in a vacated landscaping center on Old Highway 63 near Stephens Lake.

At least every Monday I volunteered to help straighten up the place, pick up some grocery items or drive a guest on an errand. I mostly hung out, talked and listened and learned when homeless guys get along and when something flashes up and tempers flare.

I was most impressed with the human relations skills of the manager, a last-minute hire, who himself had been homeless, abused, incarcerated, addicted and beat up, and just generally not like any of my academic colleagues. He could cook, keep the peace and was a keen observer of the situations, moods and needs of about 16 men and sometimes a woman or two.

A peak experience was watching the Super Bowl at the shelter with about a dozen guys who often had trouble remembering where they left their backpack on the bus route, or what time they were supposed to take their meds, but could recite details of Super Bowl I with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967.

Becoming more aware of homeless men and women around town, I learned about Loaves and Fishes, the dinner soup kitchen; Turning Point, a day center located at Wilkes Boulevard Methodist Church, that provides showers, laundry and mail services; and Love Inc., a multi-service provider for low income people, especially those with families.

I learned about government agencies that affect low income housing and social services, usually hearing about a homeless person’s frustration with a caseworker or medical provider. I learned about homelessness from the ground up.

Most important for me were the couple dozen guys I have kept up with, usually at the Columbia Public Library if not at Room at the Inn, the young woman who I transported and encouraged during her pregnancy, and the few guys I checked in on every now and then.

In the past decade, I witnessed drug overdoses for the first time, stood between two guys who thought they were entitled to the same space, and drove two guys to court multiple times while their cases where “continued” over and over again. I’ve seen that frost bite can result in amputated toes. At least a dozen guys I got to know are no longer with us: several died of natural causes, two in an apartment fire, one was hit by a car on his bike, several died of drug-related causes.

About half the homeless I’ve dealt with seem to have transitioned to housing and a sheltered life. Like college students, no two unsheltered men or women are alike. Like college students, you seldom know their full story, what path they are really on, nor where they end up.

My decade of observing Columbia’s volunteer homeless services and network of volunteers leaves me grateful and optimistic. Loaves and Fishes serves about 100 dinners 365 days a year through a network of volunteers, mostly through churches. Room at the Inn has housed about 50 people a night from December to March in volunteer churches around Columbia.

In addition to the direct emergency service organizations in Columbia, there are many people and groups not easily visible who provide breakfast to 25 to 50 people several times a week or provide tents and sleeping bags to more than 50 men and women a couple times a year. Several downtown churches provide Saturday breakfast all year around. There is a woman particularly concerned with homeless folks who have pets who she seeks out and shares her pet food.

Yet, five years ago I would have predicted that the Columbia community would have established a more permanent, slightly larger, stable facility for homeless services to operate. While reasonable people can disagree about how best to do this, it is a failure of government, faith-based and nonprofit leadership that a suitable facility has not been established. I know, I know: Everybody is busy with something or other.

Meanwhile, there are no hygienic sanitation facilities downtown, our oft-publicized “heating and cooling centers” have reduced hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and bus transportation is inadequate.

As we enter this pandemic winter, Loaves and Fishes continues to serve dinners and Room at the Inn is preparing to operate between Dec. 13 to March, 14, 2021. Due to the generosity of the Unitarian Universalist Church, who has opened its facility for the entire period, and to the City of Columbia’s funding to rent the Eastwood Motel on the Business Loop, there will be emergency shelter for several months this winter.

Because the majority of volunteers at Loaves and Fishes and Room at the Inn are near, or past, retirement age, COVID-19 concerns will require that younger staff be hired and paid, thus increasing funding need.

For those who are able, personal involvement in Loaves and Fishes or Room at the Inn is best, but 2020-2021 may mean that instead of personal volunteering, we use Como Gives or direct contributions to support efforts to care for the unsheltered. There are many reasons to insure that all communities care for the least, the lost, and the lonely, not the least of which is to better understand ourselves and our place in the world.

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

Homeless community needs available water, sanitation from city

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 7, 2020

Editor’s Note
David Webber’s column usually appears online on Friday and in print Sunday. This is an extra column from him in response to the City Council’s discussion of COVID-19 and the homeless community in Columbia.

I requested to make a public comment at Monday’s City Council meeting, but because of social distancing, no public comments were heard. Below are my expanded comments that I wish to send to the council.

Mayor Treece, City Council, city employees present:
I ask that you consider the drinking water and sanitation needs of the homeless in the downtown area. We all know the importance of drinking plenty of water and washing our hands with soap. There is no public availability of water downtown.

When I have mentioned this lack of water and toilets to several people, they say, “That can’t be true.” But it is true.

There is a portable toilet at Flat Branch Park and one behind Wabash Station, which is only open when buses are running. A single water fountain in Flat Branch Park may be turned on soon because of better weather.
The city should provide several portable toilets and drinking water 24/7 immediately.

The immediate cause of the drinking water and sanitation crisis is the closing of the public libraries and other public buildings and the “take-out only” requirement of downtown restaurants, but frankly the city should have provided sanitation facilities downtown long ago. You know, like the quality of the facilities located along the MKT trail.

As a runner, I know the pleasure of drinking water and sanitation facilities along the MKT trail, which are available 12 months a year.
Over the years, I have also noticed delivery trucks and businessmen pull into the MLK Garden or Forum Boulevard parking lots to use the facilities and head on down the road. But there are not quality sanitation facilities where unsheltered people hang out. Few homeless people use the MKT trail.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve provided bag lunches and bottled drinking water to 16 different street people. I know these people’s names; most of them know mine — so it is personal. I am not unusual in that regard.
In addition to the volunteers at Loaves and Fishes and Room at the Inn there are many people in Columbia who provide food to the unsheltered when they see the opportunity.

My hunch is that only five of the 16 street people I have spoken with have regular indoor shelter — mostly what you and I would call “couch surfing” and what social workers call “doubling up.” Some make brief stays at low-cost hotels, and then they are back on the streets. Several have public housing but can’t afford anything else. None of them has a car.
Several of them carried plastic bottles that were empty. Three of them are already mighty thin.

These folks are not likely to go to group camps, and about half avoid going to Turning Point and Loaves and Fishes because, well, the sentence I hear often is, “There is too much drama.”
They prefer to stay off by themselves or with one buddy. That may be a public benefit because of their fewer interactions.

Panhandlers face new challenges, too. Less road traffic and increased pressures on family incomes means less earnings flying a sign.
Fewer dollars in a cup mean more hunger and less shelter. Additionally, closing restaurants and now Lucky’s Market means fewer places to fetch food and water.

I propose that drinking water, hygiene water and toilet facilities be provided by the city in a downtown location seven days a week. Columbia and the Boone County Department of Health and Human Services should coordinate with other departments to locate such facilities.
If I am pressed for locations, I suggest the city parking lot east of the Armory on Ash Street and another in an alley behind a parking garage.
A portable toilet available 24/7 would take 24 hours to order, a hand washing station might take a bit long and I am unsure how to quickly make water available.
While I prefer a more ambitious plan to address the needs of the homeless, providing drinking water and sanitation facilities is a simple step that can be carried out quickly.

Ideally, Columbia would provide several day centers like Turning Point, a supervised community camp, some tiny houses, more mental health services, etc.
With likely increases in rent-related evictions as COVID-19 affects the economy, the number of street people will probably increase. Without water and sanitation, we are risking a public health crisis.

In the name of the 15 men and one woman I have shared bag lunches and bottled water with, I thank you for your consideration.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1985 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. His column usually runs in print on Sundays. This is an extra column from him in response to the City Council’s discussion of COVID-19 and the homeless community in Columbia.