Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia accepting homeless guests

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 | 5:46 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — For the first time, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia is providing a winter shelter for homeless people.

It opened Dec. 9 and continues through Friday. The church is considering extending the shelter through Dec. 31.

"There has been a huge outpouring of donations of food, blankets and warm clothing, both from our congregation and from our neighbors and members of the community," the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon said.

Room at the Inn, a homeless relief program of the Columbia Interfaith Resource Center, has loaned more than 30 cots to the Unitarian Universalist Church, as well as bedding and blankets, Housh Gordon said.

Residence Inn, a hotel at 1100 Woodland Springs Court in northeast Columbia, has donated sheets. When its shelter closes for the season, the church plans to donate the sheets to Room at the Inn.

Jeff Stack, head of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Columbia, reached out to Unitarian Universalist Church before the cold weather hit this month.

Last year, the Fellowship of Reconciliation worked with the Imani Center to provide winter shelter for the last two weeks of December, Stack said.

A few churches are involved in the operation. After supper at Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen based out of Wilkes Boulevard Methodist Church, the Missouri United Methodist Church takes guests to the Unitarian Universalist Church at 2615 Shepard Blvd. The Methodist church then brings the guests downtown in the morning.

In addition, the Crossing, an evangelical Presbyterian church in south Columbia, is helping with a generous donation, Housh Gordon said.

The church responds

Community services are overwhelmed, Stack said, and the Unitarian Universalist's involvement has been critical.

At first, the church housed an average of 12 people, but recently the number has risen to more than 20. The maximum it can accommodate is 38. It accepts men and women, but not families.

Housh Gordon thinks the church is not serving many people so far because of its location, but it has reached out to other charitable and social services to advertise its services.

More than 35 people out of 240 adult members have signed up to volunteer for three shifts a night. During the first and second shifts, volunteers check in guests and their bags, help them settle in and provide them with bedding. In the morning, a third shift provides coffee and breakfast bars.

Ten volunteers are on regular cleaning and laundry duty. Church members wash the shelter's sheets at home. Volunteers stow the cots when there is a church function, but so far there haven't been many, Stack said. 

The church hired an experienced shelter manager, who is paid with donations, Stack said.

The city has become involved, transporting the cots to the church and providing police presence for the first few hours of service.

Meeting the call to help others has been meaningful, Housh Gordon said.

A group effort

The Unitarian Universalist Church is one of several Columbia churches that have become involved in efforts to fight homelessness during the winter months.

In January and February, homeless people will have access to five churches through Room at the Inn, the Rev. Larry Williams of Missouri United Methodist Church said. They are Broadway Christian Church, Calvary Episcopal Church, Missouri United Methodist Church, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church and Community United Methodist Church.

During that time, Missouri United Methodist, in addition to providing shelter for two weeks, will transport guests to and from all locations.

Despite this help, Columbia's homeless population still lacks essential services. Stack acknowledged there are a lot of generous people in this community but shuttling the homeless from church to church is not a permanent solution.

"We have to do much better in this community," Stack said. "And we can." 

There is no reason people should die of frostbite, he continued, stressing the need for a partnership among business, city and faith communities.

Other homeless shelters include Harbor House, New Life Evangelistic Center, St. Francis House and Lois Bryant House.

The Unitarian Universalist Church has not decided if it will continue its December winter shelter into next year. However, it is looking for volunteers to staff the remaining shifts. To get involved, call Stack at 449-4585.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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