Cold snap highlights need for homeless shelters

Recent cold weather in Columbia has sharpened the need for more housing options for the city's homeless community
Friday, January 13, 2012 | 4:38 p.m. CST; updated 5:12 p.m. CST, Friday, January 13, 2012

COLUMBIA — Salvador Cabrera didn't know where to go when he became homeless last March after separating from his wife.

“It was the tail end of winter, the beginning of spring, so it was still cold," Cabrera said. "I lived out of my vehicle. I found a spot I could park and not worry about law enforcement."

To combat the cold, Cabrera would turn the car on for five or 10 minutes at a time to warm up and dressed in layers: boots, socks, sweats, pants, a coat “like you’re going outside but you’re sleeping in those clothes.”

On Thursday night, Cabrera took shelter on one of seven beds at New Life Evangelistic Center. Some of the year’s lowest temperatures meant added challenges for the city’s homeless community and shelters. 

Four of Columbia's shelters report a heavy demand for their services this month – and the recent cold snap has shown how necessary their services are.

The Missouri Interagency Council on Homelessness counted 182 homeless individuals in Boone County during its January 2011 Winter Point-in-Time Count.

The seven-bed shelter at New Life Evangelistic Center turned away twice as many people when it snowed Wednesday night, manager Hank Zeniewicz said.

“It tells me we need more shelter spaces here, and I’ve known that for quite a while,” Zeniewicz said.  “During the warmer months the problem isn’t quite as bad, but during the winter we need more space available.”

On Friday morning, Cabrera visited St. Francis House, an intentional community serving homeless people in Columbia. The day there begins at 7 a.m. with coffee, oatmeal and cold cereal. Frank, the adopted black dog, looks for head-pats from the men who help themselves to breakfast.

All 14 beds at St. Francis House have been full this month, and were full again Thursday night, Catholic worker Britt Hultgren said.

All 10 beds in Room at the Inn, a shelter at 804 N. Old 63 operated by Missouri United Methodist Church, have been full since the shelter reopened Jan. 4, on-site manager Shannon Stewart said.

On Thursday night, police brought a man they found sleeping in an abandoned building to Room at the Inn, where he found a place to sleep.

Until Thursday night, Room at the Inn had turned away four to five people every night. Stewart said he thinks people realized that there were no available spots and stopped asking.

The Salvation Army shelter provided another five beds Thursday night in addition to its 61 regular beds, regional coordinator Maj. Kendall Mathews said. When the temperature drops below 20 degrees, the shelter can expand services to accommodate up to 15 extra people.

Hultgren at St. Francis House said there are a few emergency options when shelters fill up: a laundromat on Conley Road, ATM lobbies or even under the awning at the car wash on Wilkes Boulevard — just to keep the wind and damp off.

"A wind block is such a huge thing," Hultgren said. He keeps track of warm locations around Columbia “so I can tell people where to go.”

The challenge of a warm space doesn’t stop when the sun comes up.

During the day, Cabrera frequents Ellis Library at MU and the Columbia Public Library. He said there’s also the option of riding the 106 A and B bus, which is free. The Interfaith Day Center and the Armory are other warm places open to homeless people.

“The hardest thing to do is to stay out of the cold on the weekend,” Cabrera said, because many MU libraries have limited hours when students are away and the buses don’t run.

"Sunday's suck," Stewart said. The manager at Room at the Inn has been homeless for two and a half months. He goes to church on Sunday mornings, but says the afternoons can be a challenge.

Hultgren said there are unmet needs in the homeless community despite the services that exist.

“To give them a warm place to sit is a real gift that the community can give them,” Hultgen said. While being kind to homeless people is always nice, he said, “it’s especially beneficent now.”

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