A crowd of about 100 people gathered Thursday night to reflect on what they hope to see from the city’s contracted homeless services.
The six social service groups behind the project organized the meeting to assess the community’s suggestions for an emergency shelter and other services.
Jane Williams, executive director of Love Columbia, suggested that a homeless shelter should have at least 25 units for families. The member organization has placed around 20 families at a time in hotels since the start of the pandemic, she said.
Representatives from member groups at the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen, Turning Point Day Center and Room at the Inn Winter Shelter also spoke of the strain on their services. Some of them, such as Turning Point and Room at the Inn, were meant to be temporary fixes.
“I always used to say that we serve an average of 85 people per night, but those of you who have been to Loaves and Fishes in the past two months know that is no longer true,” said said Ruth O’Neill, coordinator of Loaves and Fishes. “We’re serving more. I think last night they served 147 meals.”
The Broadway Christian Church meeting room split into groups to consider a series of questions led by facilitators associated with member organizations.
City Council members Pat Fowler, Nick Foster and Betsy Peters joined the roundtables, and Mayor Barbara Buffaloe gave the event’s keynote address.
The questions focused on implications for planning such as the capacity and use of different facilities: how big should a night shelter be? Should transitional housing be on the same site? How should a housing resource center work?
Randy Cole, CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority, told the Missourian that he’s seen increased housing capacity and strong support services emerge from the ideas shared from the discussions. The Housing Authority is the lead agency for the planning phase of the project.
When attendees passed the microphone to share ideas from their tables, Dianna Douglas suggested that case managers stay with clients once they find permanent housing. Neighboring groups responded with support.
“We can put a person home… Later they’re back on the streets because they haven’t had that constant support,” Douglas said. “We need to make sure we have this constant support throughout the process.”
A homeless woman named Erin has been a guest at Room at the Inn since 2017 and said she has seen demand for the shelter increase.
Erin suggested that a shelter have locked boxes so guests can safely store their belongings and avoid the fatigue of carrying bags from place to place.
She said she wanted homeless services to be visible to community members so the general public would better understand their homeless neighbors and see how the community supports each other.
“They might see how we can care for each other in our own little community in our own way,” Erin said.
Erin called the severity of homelessness a “humanitarian medical emergency” and suggested the tent cities be cast in bronze as a symbol of what society has been through.
As the meeting closed, Cole implored community members to reach out to partner organizations with any other suggestions they might have. He said a plan for the project would be presented in August and that the band would “put pen to paper by then”.
City spokesperson Sydney Olsen said the city hopes to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, but it’s too early to tell.
“What we’d like to see come out of this collaboration is a place where we can put our beds down and not have to worry about getting them back after a week or two weeks – or if we have any luck, after a month,” said Debby Graham, Chair of the Room at the Inn Board of Directors.