COLUMBIA — Piles of blankets, clothing, shoes and packaged food covered the floor and a makeshift table in the basement of Oak Towers Tenant Club on Monday afternoon while five volunteers packed the provisions in garbage bags tied with twine.
The basement serves as a storage space for the Columbia-Boone County Basic Needs Coalition, which will distribute the bundles on Wednesday to county homeless not living in shelters.
About 40 volunteers will form teams and fan out across the county to make contact with homeless people and provide them with information about services and other help. The effort also includes a twice-yearly count to get a better handle on the number of homeless and their needs.
Denise Heet, vice president of the Basic Needs Coalition and homeless veterans coordinator for Truman Veterans’ Hospital, said the coalition’s first priority is to offer assistance.
“The main thing is to engage anyone we can and get them help,” Heet said.
In addition to counting the homeless, volunteers will collect demographic information and distribute the bundles put together by volunteers.
“Most of the people we will find unsheltered are there by choice, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help,” said Ron Schmidt, the coalition’s coordinator.
Demographic information will be collected through a survey provided by the Missouri Housing Development Commission. Volunteers will also gather information about whether those surveyed have sought help in the past and what their experiences have been in doing so.
The number of volunteers has allowed the coalition to expand its outreach beyond Columbia’s city limits for the first time in the several years the count has been done.
“We want to really cover all of Boone County, so the more volunteers we get, the more we can move out of Columbia,” Heet said.
Teams will work in shifts that begin as early as 6:30 a.m. and conclude at 8 p.m. They will go to The District, campsites in the woods, malls and libraries, among other places.
“We have developed relationships with individuals who were formerly homeless. They guide us to those places,” Heet said, referencing a list that also includes hospital emergency rooms, 24-hour quick stops and food banks.
In July 2007, the coalition counted 66 unsheltered individuals, while only 33 were counted last January. Heet said that the cold weather is a likely factor in the lower count and predicts Wednesday’s number to be less than that from July.
“We get that number to show that we do have this issue in the area and get more funding and resources,” Heet said, adding that the focus is “being able to connect with even just one person.”