COLUMBIA — The scene is reminiscent of a family reunion: People gather around in the yard outside a Park Avenue public housing apartment or sit at shaded picnic tables for easy conversation. Jamie Walters and a friend discuss his latest catch of bluegill. Another man talks about his plans for a bicycle ride on one of Columbia's trails.
Inside a cramped, one-bedroom apartment, Dahne Yeager, manager of the Columbia Interfaith Resource Center, is serving lunch. Today, the menu includes vegetable or bean soup, balogna sandwiches, milk and a doughnut with chocolate frosting for dessert.
A young man, noticeably hot and sweaty, comes in asking for a towel, deodorant and soap. He needs a shower. Yeager accepts some good-natured ribbing after telling the man the center is out of deodorant. Nearby, another patron looks over a Dry Erase board with a list of local job opportunities. Someone's looking for a painter; others seek workers to install garage doors or to drive delivery trucks.
For more than 25 years, the day center has been a gathering spot for residents of Columbia who are homeless. At its most basic, it's a place to get out of the heat or the cold. But it also provides an array of services: a one-person shower, direct contact with agencies that promote physical and mental health and referrals to social and legal services. Patrons can get help with Social Security benefits, food stamps and housing.
Jamie Walters, who visits the day center regularly, told of the time earlier this spring when heavy rain flooded him out of his place along one of Columbia's trails. Yeager was able to give him a couple of tarps to stay dry.
Jack Mason, another frequent visitor, said the center is an important asset.
“This is a good place," he said. "You can get something to eat or get prescriptions for medication.” While there are no doctors at the center, its staff can put people in direct contact with medical services, and in some cases it helps pay for medicine.
Yeager said the biggest contribution the day center makes is giving 250 people access to mail. Just having a street address can be a major benefit to those who find themselves homeless. An address helps them get state identification cards, maintain family contacts and access agencies that require an address to register for services.
Crowding, however, is a challenge that Yeager deals with every day. About 30 to 50 people come to the center each day, enough that they're often forced to eat in shifts. Shelves overflow with backpacks, sleeping bags and other belongings of people who use the center. Signs remind visitors that they're not supposed to leave things on the floor, but the shelves are so full it's impossible to comply.
The cramped quarters also compromise privacy. Yeager said crowding prevents some people, especially the newly homeless, from coming to the center. It also can hinder his efforts to establish relationships.
Space isn’t the only problem leaving the center vulnerable. Its lease with the Columbia Housing Authority expires permanently Sept. 30. And while negotiations continue for an interim site, Yeager is worried.
“I don’t know if I’ll have a job, and I don’t know if these guys will have a place to go,” Yeager said.
A collaborative effort of local churches, the Columbia Interfaith Resource Center and the city of Columbia is trying to address the problem. City officials got involved last fall after the Interfaith Resource Center applied for Community Development Block Grant money to buy a property to house a new center.
In its initial application to the Community Development Commission, the organization sought $82,000 to buy a house and land at 108 Austin Ave. in the Ridgeway neighborhood. The proposed site would have expanded the center from the existing 400 square feet to 1,400 square feet.
The application also identified several goals that the center wants to meet, such as case management services, Internet access and private consultations with medical and social service providers. It also wants to address more basic needs: laundry facilities and more showers and restrooms.
The commission liked the group's idea but rejected its application because it could not demonstrate control of the Austin Avenue property. That's when city officials stepped in to help.
City Manager Mike Matthes recommended in a May 20 report to the Columbia City Council that the city allocate $126,741 of surplus from the fiscal 2012 budget to buy property for a new resource center. That way, Matthes said, the center would have control of a property and could start a capital campaign and return with another application for CDBG money to fully develop the center.
Matthes noted that the center has been working for some time with city staff, faith leaders and personnel from Voluntary Action Center and Truman Veterans Hospital to plan a comprehensive services center.
"The planned facility would include space for the Room at the Inn winter emergency shelter, the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, the Interfaith Day Center, as well as office space for Voluntary Action Center and VA Hospital homeless services staff," Matthes wrote, adding that a facility of that type has been identified as a high priority in the city's draft of a new comprehensive plan.
City staff is looking for property. Ruth O'Neill, a board member for the resource center, said the ideal location would be between Broadway and Business Loop 70 and between Garth and College avenues. That, she said, would allow people to access city buses.
The plan would be for the city to buy the property and to lease it long term to the group.
Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said the move would be a good long-term investment for city government because any central-city property it buys will increase in value over time.
As for the center itself, Trapp said a new building probably is preferable but that an existing building could be retrofitted.
The complexity of the project is one of the big issues facing the project, Trapp said. “Columbia is blessed to have involved churches and numerous nonprofits, and bringing all of those elements to move a project like this forward is a challenge.”
Trapp also emphasized that he hopes the arrangement won't be permanent. The long-term goal is to move people out of homelessness, he said.
“We’re not naive enough to think we’re going to eliminate homelessness, but we do want to end it for veterans and children and eliminate exposure deaths," Trapp said. "People shouldn’t freeze to death in a community that says it cares about people.”
Trapp also hopes to reduce some of the stigma that surrounds people who find themselves homeless. He wants the public to know that the homeless “are not just the guy on Ninth asking for a quarter. Anyone can be a victim of abuse. This is what we call the hidden face of homelessness.”
Trapp says he prefers the term “individual who is homeless because it’s something that has happened, not who they are."
Not everyone is entirely sold on the idea of the city getting involved. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said that when she was a recent guest on a radio program, some callers registered their concern about whether it would be a sound investment of city money.
Nauser defended the council’s decision. “By helping out, by buying this property, the nonprofits will then be able to provide services that will relieve some of the pressure on local governments such as the Health Department,” she said.
Nick Foster, executive director of the Voluntary Action Center, said the primary benefit of a new center would be the increase in the number of services offered. The Voluntary Action Center helps a lot of people who also use the day center. A new building would allow it to offer those services on site.
Foster said the need goes beyond social services.
“The community needs a larger building with better facilities for bathrooms and showers, serving meals and having room for emergency shelter for severe weather conditions," he said in an email. "The current location is far too small for our population, and the facilities are woefully inadequate.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.