For the last eight years, Room at the Inn, a volunteer-operated organization, coordinates shelter for the homeless in different Columbia congregations. From Dec. 4, 2016 until Feb. 28, 2017, congregations like First Baptist Church in downtown Columbia will rotate in shifts. Those in need of emergency shelter against the cold can stay from 7 pm until 7 am.
Pastor Carol McEntyre from First Baptist said that the church is always full during the shift. She’s proud that the contemporary worship service still happens every Sunday in the same shelter space.
“We still meet when Room at the Inn is here, but we always kind of prepare people that it’s going to be a little bit different here,” McEntyre said.
“There’s going to be cots. We stack them up against the wall. There’s going to be some tables out with cereal and that kind of thing stacked on it. I actually kind of enjoy having those symbols around the room as we worship, because it’s a reminder that we’re called to serve.”
Room at the Inn volunteers do wake-up calls, prepare breakfast, clean, and prepare the space. McEntyre said that she believes this should only be a temporary solution, and she wants Columbia to have a permanent place to host the chronically homeless year-round. Financially, it doesn’t cost her congregation much to participate.
“I think ultimately they’d like to have a permanent shelter,” she said.
“I think that’s a struggle in Columbia, that we don’t have that. People are homeless all year round, so we’re really only helping people in the coldest months.”
Steve Hollis, human services manager for the City of Columbia and Boone County, plays a coordinating role in Columbia homelessness. He said the government doesn’t provide emergency shelter services but provides warming and cooling centers. But these centers aren’t targeted towards people experiencing homelessness, and nobody can spend the night. This winter, he said that the Columbia and Boone County Department of Health and Human Services has stepped forward and taken over Room at the Inn as a social service.
“It meets the demand for what we call low-barrier shelter services, what we call overnight emergency shelters, typically serving unsheltered, chronically homeless persons,” Hollis said.
“Many of these folks are not able to and not interested in staying in the 24-hour emergency shelter facilities that we’ve got, so the city has partnered with the faith community over the last 7 or 8 years making sure we have a winter emergency shelter in the community.”
Hollins said that the city is actually seeing a decrease in homelessness. For now, those struggling this winter can find a warm nook in the five scheduled volunteer congregations.