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For several years now, reporters across the Missouri News Network have looked closely at the issue of homelessness in Columbia – and beyond. Reporters and photographers talked with those who are unhoused, those who are finding ways to help homeless people, and leaders and policymakers working on funding and policy changes to bring change to the homeless community. Here is a collection of those stories.

Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church discusses impact of day center, soup kitchen on neighborhood

Community members met inside the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church on Monday to discuss the impact of the Turning Point Day Center and Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen on the neighborhood.
Kelsey Rightnowar
Columbia Missourian
Community members met inside the Wilkes Boulevard Methodist Church on Monday to discuss the impacts of the Turning Point Day Center and Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen on the neighborhood.

Dozens of neighbors, volunteers and other community members met at the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church Monday to discuss how programs geared toward helping Columbia’s homeless population are affecting the surrounding area.

The church has housed the Turning Point Day Center and Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen for about a decade. Some neighbors have complained the programs are a detriment to the neighborhood.

Oct. 1 was the original date the church told Loaves and Fishes it would have to find a new location. But there is some flexibility to this deadline, according to previous Missourian reporting.

A panel that included the heads of Turning Point and Loaves and Fishes, church leadership, First Ward Councilperson Nick Knoth and city officials heard grievances from community members. Some blamed the church and charity programs for inaction when users of the programs commit crimes in the neighborhood, while some pointed fingers at the city for not doing enough.

Michael Martin is a Columbia landlord who owns property near Wilkes Methodist. He was the first in the audience to make a comment, and he spoke several times throughout the meeting.

“My one comment, and I think it would encompass everything that any neighbor here would expect of this organization, is that you mitigate your impacts on the neighborhood,” Martin said, “You become just as dedicated to your impacts on the neighborhood and mitigating them as you are to your mission to your homeless folks.”

Martin said he and others in the neighborhood believe nearby crime has gotten out of hand.

“There is no one in this community that doesn't support this mission,” Martin said. “What we don't like are the squatters, the pop-up landfills, the drug dealing, the crime, the people screaming and yelling obscenities as you pass during the day to you or your children. I mean, the list is a long one. And it's been going on here for almost 10 years.”

Multiple residents spoke about how they often find homeless people sleeping on their property and burning trash in empty backyards. One said she worries about gun violence in the neighborhood, while another said he carries a gun for protection.

Others spoke as members of and on behalf of the homeless community, praising the church for hosting the services and advocating for an empathetic solution.

Anita Dye was homeless until last September. She said the difficulty that homeless people have getting jobs and housing is the root of the problems facing the community.

“When you feel like everybody's against you, and you don't feel like you can walk into McDonald's and get a job because you get looked down at, yes, you get depressed, you get angry, you want to fight back and you do things you wouldn't do: destroy property, get angry at that person, beat this person up,” she said.

After about half an hour of public comments, the panelists spoke. The first to speak was Pat Fowler, former First Ward Councilperson and president of the local neighborhood association. She criticized the city for not doing enough to help the neighborhood, church and homeless people.

“The city has broken its contract with us as a neighborhood,” she said. “We as neighbors are compassionate to our unsheltered neighbors and to the mission of this church, and we're grateful for that. But the city hasn't kept up its end of the bargain.”

Some specific services she said are lacking include trash services and public restrooms, and she encouraged others to think of solutions to the shared problems of the community

“Think about all the things that aren't working well, and demonstrate the compassion of bringing those services to our neighborhood,” she said.

“The idea that this is a social contract with all of us, so that we can provide that compassion along with you and not be at odds with you, is where I think this conversation needs to go.”

Fowler said the neighborhood association is having a meeting at the church on Saturday at 10 a.m. to discuss more potential solutions.

Councilperson Nick Knoth spoke next and said it is critical that the community continue giving feedback to the city.

“We're doing everything we can, as we can, and I welcome your feedback,” he said to the crowd. “The city only can do what it knows about and can only address things as it knows about it.”

About an hour into the meeting, Loaves and Fishes Coordinator Ruth O'Neill spoke, giving details on the nightly food service the group provides and how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated some of the impact on the community.

For example, the group began giving meals away in a to-go box, which increased littering in the neighborhood. While today most people eat their meals at the church, some still take it to go and O’Neill said the group is phasing that option out.

Loaves and Fishes has not yet found a new location to host the kitchen. Church leaders did not answer exactly how long Loaves and Fishes would be allowed to stay at the meeting.

Turning Point Director Darren Morton said he hears and understands the residents’ concerns, but thinks the community is often too quick to only focus on the negatives of Turning Point rather than the good work the center has done over the last decade.

“We're trying, and again, Turning Point needs to get better,” he said. “And we're waking up each and every day wanting to evolve to get just that. But when we speak about the ugly, can we sometimes just say that ‘they are trying,’ that ‘they are doing a little bit more than just that?’”

Despite some contentious moments, most found the meeting to be productive and a good start. Church Council Chairperson Dianna Douglas said the meeting laid the groundwork for finding solutions, which she hopes to do at future meetings.

“I feel hopeful,” she said. “You can't just discuss the problem, you’ve got to come up with solutions. And we can't come up with those overnight, and it's going to take a village.”

Harshawn Ratanpal is a senior at the University of Missouri studying journalism and economics. He is the current Print-Audio Convergence Editor, or PACE, for the Missouri News Network focusing on homelessness coverage.
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