Homelessness is never easy, and that’s especially true in the wintertime when temperatures drop and shelters fill up. Sid Howard and his wife Patricia know this firsthand.
“Me and my wife became homeless Christmas Eve of 2014,” Sid said. “We didn't know what we was going to do.”
“We stayed in hotels,” Patricia said. “Spent up all our money there.”
Turning Point runs out of the top floor of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church on Eighth Street. A bright green shelving unit lines most of one wall of the main room, overflowing with black trash bags which hold the possessions of Turning Point’s homeless clients. While there are around a dozen locations in town that offer varying levels of shelter and housing assistance, Turning Point is a day center which provides homeless people in Columbia with numerous services, from a place to shower, wash clothes and store belongings each day to referrals and connections to other service providers in town.
Those services used to be provided by the full-time Interfaith Day Center run by the Columbia Interfaith Resource Center going back to the 1970s, but it was forced to shut its doors in 2014. Turning Point opened that April as a stop gap measure until a permanent home for a new full-time day center could be developed.
The city purchased a lot on Eighth Street to be that permanent home, but neighborhood concerns about the glut of social services in the area forced that plan to be withdrawn last fall.
“We already have four homeless shelters, a free store, Turning Point, Loaves and Fishes,” says Pastor Meg Hegemann of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church and Turning Point. “The feeling was we're taking a lot of burden on behalf of the city of Columbia as a whole, and it's time for some other neighborhoods to step up.”
This map shows the distribution of locations offering various levels of housing and shelter assistance to homeless people in Columbia. Note: Not all shelters release their location to protect residents.
Ryan Levi / KBIA
So Columbia was left without a plan for a permanent day center to go along with its rising homeless population, which has more than doubled to more than 350 people since 2008, according to the federally-mandated Point in Time Count, which most people recognize as an undercount.
“We know across the nation it's an undercount,” says Steve Hollis, the human services manager for the City of Columbia/Boone County Health and Human Services. “Just imagine trying to go out and literally find homeless people. Everybody knows it's an undercount.”
And yet, service providers in Columbia are more optimistic than ever about their odds of actually putting a dent in the city’s homelessness problem. A lot of that optimism has to do with increased collaborative efforts around homelessness.
Since the beginning of this year, more than a dozen agencies have been compiling a name-by-name list of Columbia’s homeless population as part of the Functional Zero Task Force.
“We're looking at each person who's experiencing homelessness and having them assessed in the same way,” says Katie Burnham Wilkins, the homeless program coordinator at the Truman VA Hospital. “We can kind of triage the people that have the most need and make sure we're working with them first.”
Wilkins brought the idea of functional zero, where communities strive to end chronic homelessness by identifying each person and working to move that person into housing as quickly as possible, to Columbia last summer after attending a national homelessness conference in Washington D.C.
“We were getting ready to plan our seventh Project Homeless Connect event, and there had been people at that event that I'd seen every single year for seven years,” Wilkins says. “There was just a part of my heart that asked, 'Why are they still homeless seven years later? What are we doing wrong on an agency level? What are we doing wrong on a community level that someone is homeless in Columbia, Missouri, for seven years? We can do better than this.'”
The task force, which specifically targets homeless veterans as well as the chronically homeless, meets every other week to pool their resources to find housing solutions for the most vulnerable people.
“We know that we may not be able to prevent people from experiencing homelessness, but we know that when they do experience homelessness we want for in Columbia, Missouri, that to be a brief and rare experience,” Wilkins says.
The collaborative spirit of the Functional Zero Task Force has proven contagious.
“I think every time a group of us gathers and we talk about this, the one thing we agree on more than any other thing is that we need a day center,” says Nick Foster, the director of Voluntary Action Center (VAC). VAC is one of the agencies involved with the Functional Zero Task Force and one of several groups actively working on plans for a permanent full-time day center.
“I think right now what I'm hopeful for is that we might find a way to collaborate and work with someone else to bring this to reality,” Foster says about a day center.
VAC, Turning Point and the Columbia Alliance to Combat Homelessness have all indicated intent to apply for funds from the city including about $40,000 left over from the failed day center project last year.
“Nobody is anxious to be in competition with somebody else to make this happen in lieu of someone else making it,” Foster says about the agencies applying for funds. “We all want to see it happen.”
Final applications for funds are due April 29, after which the groups will make proposals to the Community Development Commission, which will make a recommendation to the city council later in the summer. Hegemann says Turning Point would use the funds to expand the services it currently offers if a new permanent space does not materialize.
After a full year of homelessness, Sid and Patricia Howard finally found a place to live earlier this year. Now they are trying to help others at Turning Point do the same.
“It's what we call family. We all family here. We try to take care of everybody,” Sid says. “As long as Turning Point exists, Sid and Patricia gonna be here. And that's for real.”