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Neighborhood association discusses solutions to homelessness near Wilkes Boulevard church

Members of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association met on Saturday at the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church to discuss solutions to various issues faced by the homeless community.
Harshawn Ratanpal
Members of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association met on Saturday at the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church to discuss solutions to various issues faced by the homeless community.

Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church hosted a neighborhood association meeting Saturday about homelessness and its impacts on the surrounding community. The church has hosted the Turning Point Day Center and Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen for around a decade.

The North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association meeting was the second in a series of meetings about homelessness last week. Community members also met at the church last Monday to share their concerns and complaints about the homeless population and the perceived lack of action by the church, charities and cities to mitigate its impacts.

Pat Fowler, former Columbia councilperson and neighborhood association board president, says this and future meetings are for focusing on solutions.

The group agreed the community’s priorities are providing a safe place for homeless people to use the restroom, bathe, change clothes, throw away trash and store property. Fowler said offering the latter can be key in changing how people perceive homeless people.

“There is nothing more telling about identifying an unsheltered person than seeing someone who has to carry all their possessions with them,” she said. “It has so many consequences for how people perceive someone who has three or four bags, and it looks like they have all their possessions with them. That is a barrier that I think is so unfortunate.”

Along with more than a dozen neighbors, church council members and Loaves and Fish Coordinator Ruth O’Neill joined the discussion. Some homeless people were invited, but none were in attendance. Fowler says effectively communicating with members of the homeless community is critical to making progress on shared goals.

“The more we talk with each other about our concerns and perspectives, the more we learn from each other,” Fowler said. “I think the suggestion that we include members of the unsheltered community in our conversations going forward is wonderful. And I look forward to listening more and talking less.”

Attendees criticized the city for not doing more and said they have to be proactive citizens in the absence of city action. A handful of neighbors formed a task force that can respond to calls in the neighborhood at any time.

Local business owner and neighborhood association secretary Anthony Willroth said learning how to effectively communicate with homeless people is an important skill for neighbors to have.

“Engage with them in a more respectful manner and ask them what they need from us to be able to do a better job, and they’ll have a reason to treat the neighborhood better,” Willroth said. “Because they know that this is a place that they can be welcomed faces, so long as they're not doing destructive things, and we're giving them the resources to not have to do these disruptive things. It will just be a better relationship back and forth.”

Fowler said even as a former city councilperson, she often has trouble reaching city officials and staff with her concerns since leaving office in April.

“I've called to talk to somebody, and the person who answered the phone … said ‘Is that person expecting your call?’” Fowler said. “And my response now is ‘always.’ Because they should always be expecting that a community member is going to call them.”

The church has asked Loaves and Fishes to find a new location and has been flexible, and indeterminate, with its deadline.

The church council said it will discuss what to do with Loaves and Fishes at its next meeting later this month.

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