COLUMBIA — Thirteen Columbia residents simultaneously raised their hands and shouted "huge concern" twice during a neighborhood outreach meeting Tuesday night when they were asked how they felt about a new homeless shelter proposed for North Eighth Street.
Board members of the Columbia Alliance To Combat Homeless held the meeting at Jefferson Junior High to detail their early plans and to get public comment on them.
Alliance board member Karla DeSpain said Columbia needs another year-round homeless shelter, which is why city government bought the vacant lot just south of Business Loop 70 in April 2014 for $80,000.
The Turning Point at 702 Wilkes Blvd. is the only homeless drop-in center in the city, and the Room at the Inn, a temporary overnight shelter operated by several local churches from late December to early March, can only accommodate certain numbers of homeless people. A total of 189 homeless people have stayed an average of 10 days in the Room at the Inn last winter, according to a coordinator of the organization.
Randy Cole, of the city’s Community Development Department, said before the Tuesday meeting that it's very difficult to count the exact number of homeless people in the city. Data, however, shows that the number has nearly tripled over the past seven years.
Brad Stegemann, an architect with Simon Oswald Architecture, described the company's preliminary design for the shelter. It would have four dorm-style rooms that would accommodate 42 people and two rooms for families of up to four people each. It would also provide personal space for those staying there, along with three common shower areas, a common dining room that would fit 30 people, two rooms for counseling and community medical and dental services, 13 parking spaces and potentially a community garden at the corner of the lot.
Stegemann emphasized that the plan was preliminary to underscore that the public will have ample opportunity to comment.
The Rev. Knute Jacobson, chairman of the Columbia Alliance To Combat Homelessness and senior pastor at Rector Calvary Episcopal Church, called for a “fruitful discussion” at Tuesday's meeting. A majority of the 20 or so members of the public who were there said they worried about having 50 homeless people near their houses.
Some people offered suggestions for how to improve the design of the shelter, such as having a large storage area, a passive solar system, multiple computers and adding another story to the building.
John Hooker lives within a block of the Turning Point and has two teenage daughters and a 1-year-old daughter. He said he has already suffered many problems while living near the Turning Point.
He said the Turning Point’s Loaves and Fishes, a program designed to provide free evening meals to people every day, has given him enough problems. Having another homeless shelter in his neighborhood would make things worse, he said.
Hooker said Loaves and Fishes has brought increased foot traffic from people that he alleged buy drugs, get drunk and pass out in public.
In the past six months, Hooker said in an interview, he has seen those who eat at Loaves and Fishes “passed out in my yard, writhing around on the ground in drug-induced frenzies ... I've seen them trade cellphones for drugs right in front of my house. They've stolen bicycles from my neighbors. They've rifled through my neighbors' cars.”
During the meeting, Hooker complained that a new shelter would bring more of the same. “It sounds like you are just going to do mega-Loaves and Fishes in our backyards,” he said.
Susan Maze, who lives two blocks away from the proposed building site, raised the issue of security outside the shelter.
She said homeless people who come in and out from the Turning Point frequently come into her yard.
“If I had a little kid, I would be worried,” she said.
Samuel Calvert, who owns four lots across Eighth Street from the building site and has two teenage daughters, worries that his property value might drop if the new shelter is built. He questioned whether the end of North Eighth Street is the best place for a homeless shelter.
“I don’t know it is too smart to build a shelter next to couple of bars and a strip club,” he said.
Rocket Kirchner, who said he has been a homeless activist for decades, said he also deals with homeless people every day and thus understands the negative concerns about the proposed shelter.
However, he believes a new shelter won't create more problems. If there weren't Loaves and Fishes and Room at the Inn, he said, taxes would rise and there would be more crime.
Martha Every, who lives across from the building site, said before the meeting that she has a sister who was once homeless but now has a place to stay and a job because of support from the Hope Street Homeless Shelter in Hannibal, Missouri.
“It helps them get jobs and get stability back (in) their life again,” she said.
The Columbia City Council will vote at its Monday, Oct. 19 meeting on whether to put $44,634 in surplus money from fiscal 2012 toward the shelter.
The estimated total cost for construction is about $1 million, according to the Columbia Alliance To Combat Homelessness. Jacobson said the group first wants to finish the conversation with the neighborhood before discussing how to raise the remaining money, which is about $956,000.
The alliance plans to hold additional neighborhood gatherings before the next council meeting and will continue to discuss adjustments to the shelter's design with the public.
Dan Cullimore, president of the North Central Neighborhood Association, said the shelter fails to meet the areas specific design standards. Still, he not taken a stance on the project and said the association will discuss it further at a Tuesday night meeting.*
Simon Osward Architecture estimates construction of the shelter will begin in April 2017 and be complete by fall 2017.
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