COLUMBIA — The first time David Webber volunteered at a shelter, he found a man whose house was so cold that his washcloth would freeze. The man was grateful for the warmth of shelters, like Room at the Inn and Turning Point, that provide lodging, food and community to the homeless.
The two shelters will benefit from proceeds of a play Webber has written, called "A Night at the Shelter," which will be performed Nov. 19 and 20 at First Baptist Church downtown. The play about serving the homeless is co-directed by Caryl Bryan and Nora Dietzel. Curtain is at 7 p.m. both days, and a $10 donation is suggested.
The play's three scenes present interactions at various periods of the day between the homeless and supportive people who are inspired to help them. The interactions are based on those Webber encountered.
As a recently retired political science professor at MU, Webber said he has long been interested in public policy affecting the homeless, but said working closely with them offers new challenges.
“I am a political scientist so I am analytical," he said. "I have taught about welfare policy and poverty policy, but this is a different side of your brain.”
The week before Thanksgiving was selected for the play's two performances during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Webber said.
Columbia has a half-dozen or so shelters to serve the homeless. In addition to Room at the Inn and Turning Point, the city has Rainbow House, St. Francis House, True North and New Horizons Community Support Services. During the performances, tables with information about these and related services will be prominent, along with portraits of those who use the services.
Twice a year, a San Francisco-based project counts the homeless in Columbia and nearly 200 other cities. The biannual tally counted 461 homeless individuals in Columbia in the summer of 2014.
The point-in-time counts are done simultaneously across America, typically one day each in January and July. The collected data are forwarded to state and federal authorities to determine the amount of homeless assistance funding.
During the same period as the two counts, Project Homeless Connect reaches out to provide medical and mental health services, substance abuse help, housing, dental and legal assistance, free eyeglasses and clothing, food, haircuts and more.
The latest event in Columbia was July 30 when a variety of services were offered by the Columbia-Boone County Basic Needs Coalition.
Webber said he has been a volunteer at Room at the Inn since 2009, listening, helping and simply socializing with the homeless he meets there.
Room at the Inn is an emergency winter shelter with 50 cots that typically rotates among area churches. This year, the shelter opens Dec. 20 at Fairview United Methodist Church. Other sites for the season include Broadway Christian Church, Missouri United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church and First Baptist Church. The shelter closes on the morning of March 4.
Room at the Inn is Columbia's only "damp" shelter, meaning individuals under the influence of alcohol are admitted, as long as they are older than 18.
Turning Point is a day center at 702 Wilkes Blvd. that is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon for showers, laundry and other resources.
Webber said his encounters with homeless individuals through these shelters are memorable. He said he wants his play to portray the homeless experience in Columbia by illustrating themes that underlie the causes of homelessness, as well as recognizing the small acts of kindness and community involvement.
“Most people would do more to help the less fortunate, if they saw an opportunity to make a difference," Webber said. "Room at the Inn gave me an opportunity to help out in a way that fit into my life.”
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