Neighborhood residents express concern about apartments for homeless youth

Tuesday, October 30, 2007 | 10:26 p.m. CDT; updated 4:45 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Tuesday night meeting between Central Missouri Community Action officials and residents in the North Central Columbia Neighborhood to discuss a proposed apartment complex for homeless youths might have only settled one thing: the devil is in the details.

Central Missouri Community Action, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower people to achieve self-reliance, is planning to build the apartments for homeless youths between the ages of 16 and 21.

“We’re talking about transitional housing for homeless youth,” said Darin Preis, executive director of the organization. “What we mean by transitional is helping them get on their feet and get some consistency in their lives.”

This would include helping them find jobs, teaching them responsibility by making them pay a modest rent and helping them further their education and get their GEDs.

Amir Ziv, a resident of the neighborhood, expressed a concern that many in attendance shared.

“I can’t imagine this dream — like one kid has this great place that’s going to be chaperoned,” Ziv said. “I think before we know it there’s going to be 18 to 25 kids in this place, and that’s going to wreak havoc on the neighborhood.”

Preis insisted that the complex would only house a maximum of 12 youths, and that there would be constant supervision.

Central Missouri Community Action had recently caused a stir by approaching the city’s Board of Adjustment for a variance that would allow the organization to build the apartments, despite being denied by city inspectors because of insufficient lot size for the apartments. The property is zoned properly, but would only accommodate a five-unit dwelling. Central Missouri Community Action’s apartments would contain six units.

Another concern raised at the meeting was the proximity of the property to Hickman High School. Many residents felt that the apartments would merely invite trouble to the area.

“It’s an ongoing issue with high schoolers on our (church’s) property,” said Richard Sullivan, a pastor at First Assembly of God. Sullivan said he is concerned the affordable housing project would amplify problems he has experienced with high school students smoking, having sex and stealing things on church property.

Lorenzo Larson, director of the Youth Empowerment Zone, said he works with at-risk young people and has seen the struggles they face.

“They are victims, they’re getting abused,” Larson said. “They’ve got to do things you couldn’t even imagine just to survive, just to eat. They are being prostituted ... you couldn’t even imagine some of the things these young people are going through.”

Preis emphasized that he would like to get a building in place before developing a comprehensive plan for the project’s social aspect, but he said that adult offenders and youths with drug and alcohol issues would not qualify for the program.

The apartments would be designed by students at MU supervised by architectural studies professor Michael Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt said that the complex would utilize green construction techniques and that it would conform to regulations set up by the neighborhood’s proposed design overlay district, regardless of whether it passes.

“I promote tremendously interactive design; we would not even put pencil to paper without talking to the neighborhood,” Goldschmidt said.

The lack of a plan made many residents uneasy.

“I think it’s naive to think that you’re not going to be addressing drug and alcohol abuse, that you’re not going to be addressing offenders,” said Mike Martin, a neighborhood resident who writes The Columbia Heart Beat newsletter. Martin said he was surprised and alarmed to learn that the details had not been sorted out.

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