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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Winter storm highlights concerns for Columbia's unhoused people

Sebastian Martinez Valdivia
Broadway Diner owner Dave Johnson has been using the downtown fixture as a base to provide meals for families and unhoused people.

With the biggest winter storm of the season moving into mid-Missouri, many are ready to be snowed in. But when it comes to the needs of Columbia’s unhoused community, it’s falling to other community members to step up.

At the Broadway Diner downtown, owner Dave Johnson is used to serving unhoused people. "Just by our location, here by the Flat branch, there’s always been folks that live over there,” Johnson said.

When they come into his diner, Johnson feeds them, and offers help, but he often gets turned down. Nevertheless, he can’t help but notice the effect of the elements. He recalled looking at the hands of one recent patron.

“I kind of took a sly picture and asked a doctor friend of mine, ‘is that frostbite?’ and he’s like ‘yeah that’s frostbite and it’s really bad.’”

Johnson has noticed more people in Columbia concerned about homelessness recently. He’s seen that play out through involvement with his KIND program. That started as an effort to feed kids when Columbia Public Schools shut down at the start of the pandemic, but has shifted to feeding anyone in need.

Johnson also has a little free library in front of the diner to provide cold weather gear free of charge. Talking about the unhoused people he serves makes him emotional.

“It’s a shame, because they are our society and they’re not being served by our society, and they’re not benefiting from being part of this society," Johnson said. "It just really gets me going.”

Across Columbia, the shelters that typically care for unhoused people spent Tuesday bracing for the storm. The Room At The Inn, based out of the Missouri United Methodist church downtown, announced it would transport guests who wanted to spend the day at Turning Point, another shelter at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church.

That was in response to the Daniel Boone Regional Library, a day-time warming center, shutting down Wednesday and Thursday.

Shelter has been a major issue in Columbia, as the pandemic has exacerbated the affordable housing crisis. “We have dozens and dozens of housing choice vouchers assigned to folks and we simply cannot find housing for them,” said Steve Hollis, Human Services Manager for Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services.

Those vouchers are supposed to help very-low income families access affordable rental housing. The pandemic has postponed the official count of how many unhoused people are in Columbia, but Hollis said anecdotally he’s seen more than usual lately.

“We are just seeing a lot of new faces in the last year or so," Hollis said. "When I go down to Wabash or when I’m at Room at the Inn, I do see a lot of people I don’t know.”

KBIA file photo
Wabash Bus Station serves as an emergency overnight warming center once temperatures drop to 9 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

The Wabash Bus station, which serves as an emergency overnight warming center, has been the heart of debate over Columbia’s unhoused. The city council recently rejected a call to raise the temperature threshold for opening the center from 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Renée Maxwell, with Operation Safe Winter Columbia would like to see more action.

"Our city continues to drag their feet on doing something about that and they keep pretending like they’re doing the best they can, but they’re not doing anything,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell’s group provides tents and other supplies to unhoused people. She foresees it taking years to get a full-time emergency shelter up and running.

In the meantime, Safe Winter has started a fundraiser to buy more tents for a supply drop at the end of February. Maxwell expected many people to lose their tents in the snowstorm, as heavy snowfall can collapse them.

For his part, Dave Johnson was aiming to keep the Broadway Diner open despite the storm. A recent move has made the commute trickier, but he still wanted to be a resource.

“There’s still unhoused people that are going to be out in this storm, and if I can be here and if I can feed somebody and if you can get here safely, come on down.”

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.