Homelessness initiatives continue in Columbia

These initiatives include a 24-hour resource center and a new cold weather emergency overnight warming center program.

As part of its 2020-24 consolidated plan intended to combat increasing housing prices, the city of Columbia recently unveiled plans to establish a 24-hour resource center for the homeless population. According to Steve Hollis, the human services manager at Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, more homelessness initiatives are planned for the near future.

One of these upcoming initiatives is a new cold weather emergency overnight warming center program that will be implemented this winter. When temperatures reach single digits, an overnight warming center will open in a city facility to be used by the homeless.

The city also plans on expanding the Stepping Up initiative, which aims to decriminalize homelessness and mental illness, which are often linked.

According to Hollis, Public Health and Human Services is looking to hire social workers to help keep people who are mentally ill and homeless out of the justice system. Furthermore, a street outreach team has been established to build relationships with individuals who are homeless.

Hollis said these are part of a larger series of previously established initiatives, all of which fall under an approach called “housing first.”

“We operate under the simple notion that the solution to homelessness is a home,” Hollis said. “That sounds simple, but it’s not the way our country went about handling homelessness for many, many decades. We used to say, ‘you have to get sober, take your meds and behave yourself, then maybe you’ll get housing.’ Now we say, ‘we’re going to get you housing and put you on the road to where you want to be.’”

Hollis said the goal of meeting people’s housing needs is a difficult one largely due to the city’s lack of affordable housing — an issue that can be partially accounted for by the population of college students.

Despite this, the rate of homelessness in Boone County has decreased through the city’s hard work, according to Hollis.

However, Hollis said eliminating homelessness is nearly impossible on the local level and that big changes, namely the expansion of Medicaid, need to be implemented to do so.

“If we get somebody housing but they don’t get access to mental health care, they’re probably going to have a hard time keeping that housing,” he said. “They’re sure as hell going to have a hard time getting a job with unmanaged mental health issues.”

Dale Fitch, director for the School of Social Work, agreed with the notion that combating homelessness requires addressing deeper issues.

“Some [factors], if they’re just income-related, can be more manageable and can be addressed more readily,” Fitch said. “Then if you move into mental health and substance issues, you need to have access to those services. Those are sometimes lacking in the community, or they could be there but the waiting lists are really long.”

Fitch said eliminating homelessness is also made difficult through commonly held stereotypes surrounding people who are homeless.

“We have this notion that if people just worked hard enough then they wouldn’t be homeless, and that is one of the biggest myths that continues to perpetuate the problem,” he said.

Fitch has been working with the homeless for over 30 years and currently serves on the board for Welcome Home, a local homeless shelter for veterans. He’s worked with hundreds of people who are homeless over the years and said he has never met somebody who embodies the stereotypes.

Jennifer Graves Hickam is the fiscal manager for True North of Columbia, a local service program for people fleeing domestic and sexual violence. Domestic and sexual violence is considered a category of homelessness by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Graves Hickam said that through her work with people who are homeless, she has also found that many individuals who are homeless find themselves in their situation on account of problems beyond their control.

She said that while Columbia has great resources in place to aid the homeless, they aren’t nearly enough. Because of this, she said it’s important when community members and MU students pitch in.

“[It’s necessary to] volunteer at organizations and to provide a sounding board to homeless individuals,” Graves Hickam said. “Sometimes just hearing their stories is affirming, and helps them work past it. When you’re dealing with so many issues it can really cloud your head, and getting clarity on where you are and what strategies might put you in a better place is really important for every individual who is homeless.”

Edited by Ben Scott | bscott@themaneater.com

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