COLUMBIA — Four days a week, Dahne Yager prepares meals for dozens of hungry people in a cramped kitchen at the Columbia Interfaith Resource Center.
Housed in a 285-square-foot Columbia Housing Authority apartment on Park Avenue, the center caters to the needs of a growing population of homeless people. The time has come, the center's volunteers say, to find a bigger space.
The Interfaith Resource Center is a non-profit organization providing services to the homeless and to others who need assistance.
Where is it? 616 Park Ave.
When is it open? 8:30 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Does it serve meals? Yes. The center provides free light lunches on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
What other services does it provide? Free bus passes, vouchers to The Wardrobe, telephone access for local calls and limited long-distance calls, limited medical assistance, showers, personal hygiene and first aid supplies and referrals to social service agencies.
The Rev. Steve Swope of the Columbia United Church of Christ is president of the resource center. He said the number of homeless people in Boone County has risen from 170 to more than 220 in the past three years, according to "point-in-time" counts conducted by volunteers.
"We've been seeing more families and seeing more people who used to be productively employed — even some who used to volunteer — now using these resources," Swope said.
The Columbia Interfaith Resource Center wants to do more than put a Band-Aid on the homeless problem in Columbia. It wants a larger location so it can not only accommodate the growing number of clients, but also so it can provide more services.
Toward that end, Swope has talked to officials with the Downtown Community Improvement District. And he's had conversations with several property owners who indicated they might have places the center could use for two to three years. But Swope really hopes to land a permanent facility.
Location hunting will be easier, because the center became a non-profit organization six to seven months ago. It will now receive some government assistance, and church organizations feel better about contributing to the resource center, Swope said.
The center has been there for more than 20 years. Its location is perfect because it's near The Wardrobe, the Salvation Army and the Wabash Station bus depot. Still, it's so small that visitors can barely get inside without stepping into the bathroom to close the front door behind them.
Yager is the manager of the resource center. His office consists of a fold-up table wedged between the kitchen and dining area.
"Because of the space, I’m limited to the services that I can provide," Yager said. His wish list for a new center includes men's and women's showers, a laundry facility, a larger kitchen and one or two office spaces.
For now, the facility does what it can. This summer, it has provided a space for the homeless to get out of the grueling heat. Still, on Tuesday afternoon, there was a group of men played cards under a canopy outside the center rather than enjoying the air-conditioning.
Glen Vaughn said there's a reason for that.
"You get used to the heat, sleeping on the timber," Vaughn said. "If you go in the cool, you sit in the cool, and come back out, and it makes you feel more miserable. It puts your body in shock, going back and forth. I try to stay acclimated. I'm not going to go in there and spoil myself for an hour and come out here and be more miserable."
Vaughn came to Columbia in 1977, looking for a city he could stay in. He was taken in by a Catholic priest, who let him spend a night in a small room at his church.
"I didn't know what to do, I had never been in that position before," Vaughn said.
These days, Vaughn comes to the center mostly to visit and take showers. He used to come to the center to eat dinner, but dinner has moved to a nearby church. He lives in a tent with a twin bed inside.
"I've tried everywhere to get a job," Vaughn said. "I know seven trades, including construction. It's even hard to get a job washing dishes."
Yager relates to the people who come to the resource center. He was homeless before he got his job as manager.
“So when I ended up with the keys to this place, I made it my point to get the answers to the questions I had," Yager said. Where can people fill prescriptions? How can they get a permanent address to help them get food stamps? How do they access social services? Where can find doctors?
"That was my focus," Yager said of his quest for answers. "That's what I try to do."
The Interfaith Resource Center sees a core group of about 20 to 25 people every day and around seven to 12 new people every week. Not everyone who goes to the center is homeless; some just need assistance. And because Columbia is in the middle of the state, it's not uncommon to find travelers there.
“This is a serious problem, and people need to not ignore it," Yager said, noting that some people are only one lost paycheck away from becoming homeless. "What I see is a lot of new people who have never been homeless before, and they’re scared to death. There’s a fear factor with the new people who are coming through.”