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City Council ups Wabash warming center threshold after public outcry

Columbia City Council raised the minimum temperature for opening the city’s only emergency overnight warming center to 25 degrees after an hour of impassioned public comment by concerned citizens and advocates for the homeless community.

Wabash Bus Station, referred to by the city as a “shelter of last resort,” was originally only open at temperatures of 9 degrees or lower, a threshold which the city manager temporarily raised to 15 degrees Jan. 21.

The council also instructed City Manager De’Carlon Seewood to look into ways to keep the station open during the day for unsheltered individuals to wait for buses or use the restrooms. They also urged him to look for other locations to serve as a center to add to overnight capacity, as Wabash has consistently exceeded its 13-person limit this season.

Members affiliated with multiple volunteer organizations who care for the homeless population of Columbia spoke to council members during the meeting following a report from Public Health and Human Services Director Stephanie Browning about Columbia’s current measures and actions about homelessness.

Impassioned volunteers spoke of their interactions with the unsheltered population, pleading for American Rescue Plan Act funds to be used to provide the city with an emergency homeless shelter and to raise the temperature threshold for the emergency warming centers.

“We still don’t have full service homeless shelter,” citizen Susan Niceman said. “We had an ‘emergency’ shelter since 2019. That’s supposed to be a stopgap measure.”

Volunteers from JB Mobile Soup Kitchen, Race Matters, Friends COMO, Loaves and Fishes, Operation Safe Winter CoMo, People Before Projects and CoMo for Progress gave public comments in support of council taking action to address the issue.

Concern by council for the homeless populations left out in the cold was reflected in tears of members Pat Fowler and Andrea Waner, as well as comments by other members. While city staff sympathized with the public’s comments, however, they had concerns about the city’s capacity to provide staffing and security to the Wabash station.

Browning emphasized how Wabash is a center of last resort for the community and that the center is not equipped to deal with the overall problem. She also said the center was always meant as a harm reduction strategy, not a long-term solution.

“And I focus on the (Wabash) warming center. It is not a shelter. It is insufficient to be a shelter,” Browning said. She said the city needs to look into other options if it wants a long-term solution.

Seewood echoed Browning’s statements when talking about Wabash and said he was worried about fulfilling security needs at the center.

“Wabash is not the right location to service that need,” Seewood said. “It’s insufficient.”

Currently, a police officer staffs the center on nights the center is open, which detracts from the number of officers out on the street. Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones said the city had reached out to a private security firm to keep the Wabash center secure but had not yet heard if the firm had accepted.

Seewood said he would look into keeping Wabash open during the day and continue to look for resources to make sure the center could be clean and safe. He’s also looking into what other options the city has for further short- and long-term solutions.

Stephanie Yoakam, a volunteer for JB Mobile Soup Kitchen and former volunteer for Loaves and Fishes, took the chance to remind the council that there are real people being affected by the issue who have to sleep on the cold concrete floor. She has been at the center every day it’s been open to help and serve the homeless community that shows up.

“I can tell you that they are all worthy of a safe and warm place to have a night,” she said. “I want to remind you too that it is a concrete floor with two porta-potties and no running water. This is literally what we’re begging for.”