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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.

How the City of Columbia is spending more money to address homelessness

Volunteer Becky King folds donated clothing in the back room of City Boutique on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, at City of Refuge in Columbia. King, a retired school teacher, found the volunteer opportunity through her daughter who is on the nonprofit’s staff. “This is a family affair,” King said.
Jon Tyson
Room at the Inn will now be open year round.

COLUMBIA − The city of Columbia is doing more for its homeless community than it ever has before.

In 2016, Columbia spent just $68,200 on contracts for homeless services. By 2024, Columbia will spend at least $1,044,435, according to the city's community trend manual.

Two of Columbia's new contracts for homeless services are with Turning Point and Room at the Inn. Turning Point, Columbia's sole day center with showers and laundry services, will start staying open until 3:30 p.m. instead of 12:30 p.m. starting on Jan. 1, 2024. Room at the Inn, previously an emergency shelter open during winter months, will stay open year-round starting on Oct. 29.

Columbia also has big plans for federal dollars in the form of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The city has approved over $5.6 million of ARPA funds to be given to organizations helping homeless people.

In another unprecedented step for Columbia, in May, Kari Utterback's position in the county health department was shifted to focus solely on tackling homelessness issues.

Though Columbia is spending more on homelessness than it ever has, Utterback said the problem is getting worse.

"With everything being so high, the cost of living is just going up," Utterback said. "I only see those numbers [the homeless population] rising."

Utterback said there is no silver bullet to solving homelessness.

"To get to affordable housing, we need so many people to be involved," Utterback said.

Utterback is not the only one who believes Columbia does not have enough affordable housing.

"Columbia doesn't have a homeless problem, we have a housing problem," said John Trapp, operations manager at Room at the Inn. "Being mentally ill or being addicted to substances doesn't make you homeless, it makes you vulnerable to becoming homeless when there's not enough housing for everybody."

While Trapp said being open year-round at Room at the Inn is a big step in the right direction, he echoed a point shared by many of Columbia's homelessness resource providers: many more steps need to be taken.

Ed Stansberry is the executive director of Voluntary Action Center, which received $3 million in ARPA funds to help construct and open The Opportunity Campus, a year-round shelter with wrap-around services, such as a medical clinic. Stansberry says VAC can finally begin construction on The Opportunity Campus this year after years of working up enough funding.

"It is a critical piece to the puzzle that is homelessness," Stansberry said. "We want to be surrounding them with resources that can get them up and out of homelessness."

Stansberry said the campus could be fully built in a year and a half, but he still does not believe the campus represents a complete solution to Columbia's homeless problem.

KOMU 8 News spoke with Gayle Rich, a homeless person using Turning Point's resources. Rich said many barriers stand in the way of Columbia's homeless population and getting the help they need.

"There are so many people with [housing] vouchers, and landlords will not take them," Rich said. "Nobody wants us on the street, but nobody wants to give us a place to live either."

The vouchers she mentions are federal vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which come in a variety of different forms.

Utterback said Columbia doesn't have much control over how those vouchers are handled, and many landlords refuse to accept them from homeless people, which leads to them going to waste.

"The federal government often is not very innovative with its funding dollars," Utterback said.

Another complication for Columbia's homeless population is the clearing of the homeless camps earlier this year.

"You got to uproot everything, and that's hard, you can't fit it all on the bus," Rich said. "It's not easy when they're making you move all the time."

Transportation, specifically buses, are another concern. Bus driver shortages has led to combined routes, meaning much longer wait times.

"Right now I have to catch a bus for an appointment two hours ahead of time," Rich said.

Rich said homelessness leads to a variety of health issues that all compound. Being outside in the cold, having little access to healthy food and having no means to travel quickly all create dangerous situations, especially as winter approaches, she explained.

"In bad weather people don't leave their tents," Rich said. "You can go all day with no food."

She said help is out there, but it's hard to get it. While Rich expressed excitement at the work Columbia is doing for its homeless population, she said a lot more effort needs to be made.

The Opportunity Campus won't be open for over a year, Room at the Inn can't take people with pets, and while Turning Point will be open longer, it is the only day center with shower and laundry services.

More resources are becoming available, but Rich said landlords still aren't taking vouchers, and there are no affordable housing alternatives.

"Everyone passes the buck," Rich said.

To report an error or typo, email news@komu.com.

KOMU 8 is a full-powered NBC affiliate operating as an independent commercial property. As such, KOMU 8 is the only major network affiliate in the United States that acts as a university-owned commercial television station utilizing its newsroom as a working lab for students.
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