The state of Missouri and city of Columbia are both under an active stay-at-home order as of Monday. Adherence to this order can prove difficult for those who don’t have homes to stay in.

The Columbia City Council discussed the best ways to help homeless populations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at its regular Monday night meeting.

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas proposed a motion for the council to "support the use of one or more public parks as organized campgrounds for unsheltered homeless individuals” during this period of emergency."

The motion failed 2-4, with Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp abstaining.

Mayor Brian Treece lent his conditional support of the idea before ultimately voting against the measure. He said he wanted the solution to be clinically appropriate, with a well-thought-out plan that would include public safety measures.

First Ward Councilman Clyde Ruffin added that the encampment should be staffed with trained individuals.

City Manager John Glascock has the authority under the city’s emergency resolution to go forward with finding a public place to house the homeless without an official motion. He said he, Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Director Stephanie Browning and Human Services Manager Steve Hollis would try and come up with a solution that fit Treece’s suggestions within the next week.

Hollis estimated there are at least 70 to 100 unsheltered people in Columbia; Trapp said he believed there were many more.

Both said they believe the homeless population is growing with the current economic downturn caused by the virus.

Trapp has been leading an effort with the for-profit organization AAAAChange, which he and his brother, John Trapp, run. On March 26, the two turned the Welcome Inn into an emergency shelter for the homeless population. Shortly after, the program was shut down.

Trapp then organized a temporary camping space for the unsheltered, which he referred to as “Safe Camp,” located at the southwest corner of Providence and Blue Ridge roads. This camp was shut down Monday.

Trapp’s third attempt at sheltering the unsheltered, which he announced Monday morning on Facebook, is the Gail Plemmons Memorial Car Camp and Crisis Triage Center, which he said in his post will open later in the week. He briefly alluded to this at the council meeting.

At the meeting, Trapp expressed frustration at the lack of services provided to housing-insecure people. He said that the community was especially vulnerable to community spread.

“Doing nothing will lead to a tragedy that is entirely unfair,” Trapp said.

Hollis said he didn’t see a problem with creating organized camps. The CDC recommends not breaking up encampments, as this can cause members of the population to disperse into the community and potentially further spread the virus.

“I think for a pure harm-reduction standpoint, (an organized camp) could be effective if it was done right,” Hollis said.

Treece said he wanted more information before moving forward with any actions.

“I guess I would need more information as to what is the best clinical approach,” Treece said. “As I’ve always said, our primary goal and objective needs to be to lead with the epidemiology of this, and I think there’s conflicting guidance, even from our own staff and from the CDC, as to whether the uncongregate, unsheltered population is best left in place, or I don’t know.”

Hollis did, however, say that whatever action is taken needs to be organized correctly and carefully. He emphasized that any location established to house the homeless population would need to have access to clean drinking water, bathrooms and a way for people to wash their hands.

Hollis said the health department does not have the capacity to set up a shelter at this time. He also said the department’s usual partners, the Missouri Department of Social Services* and the American Red Cross, declined to set up shelters.

The department is working to set up an isolation and quarantine facility, potentially in a hotel, for people who may not be able to quarantine in their own homes should they become exposed to the virus. This includes unsheltered people.

While this won’t necessarily protect the entire homeless population, it would hopefully slow the spread of infection among groups.

The general consensus among the council seemed to be that this issue warranted further discussion.

“We need to take a more comprehensive approach to this so that we can have the best solution possible and a workable solution that’s within the legal framework of our responsibilities as elected officials,” Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Public life reporter, spring 2020. Studying print and digital news journalism. Reach me at skylarlaird@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5720

  • Molly Hart is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. She has previously reported on state government. She can be reached at mhart@mail.missouri.edu.

  • I've been a reporter and editor at Missouri community newspapers for 35 years and joined the Columbia Missourian in 2003. My emphasis at the Missourian is on local government and elections. You can reach me at swaffords@missouri.edu or at 573-884-5366.

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