COLUMBIA — Patricia and Sid Howard had been living in their house for only about a year when they realized they couldn't afford the expenses. They sold the house and moved out on Christmas Eve 2014.

The next year was spent living in a hotel, but money soon ran low. 

Room At The Inn, an emergency shelter that opens at night during the winter months, provided a warm place for them to sleep until it closed for the spring and summer. They then showered and stored their belongings at Turning Point, a drop-in center that is open during the week.

"After (Room At The Inn) closed, we just basically stayed on the streets," Patricia Howard said. "Businesses don't accept you, restaurants won't let you in if you're homeless."

Things started to turn around for the Howards when the director of Turning Point, Marcus Reynolds, offered Patricia Howard a job. She now spends her days working with the homeless and assisting at the drop-in center.

In January 2015, 243 people were homeless in Boone County, according to a 2015 Missouri Balance of State report.

Turning Point, which is part of the Functional Zero Task Force, is now working with the Columbia Homeless Outreach Team on a new initiative called "housing first," which helps people who are homeless find housing and then works with them to tackle the issues contributing their homelessness. 

The initiative was one of the topics of discussion at a two-day conference this week at the Daniel Boone City Building. There were about 50 people in attendance. They also talked about the different types of homelessness, children who are homeless and the need for a budget to fund homeless intervention programs. 

The task force is made up of representatives of 13 programs in Columbia that serve the homeless. They focus on the veteran and chronically homeless population.

"I just can't sit in my nice warm La-Z-Boy in my living room, when the wind is blowing and it's snowing and not feel like I have to do something for the people that don't have places to go," said Janet Schisser, board member at the Columbia Alliance to Combat Homelessness and a member of leadership team at Room At The Inn.

'Housing first' concept

Instead of creating more shelters, the Functional Zero Task Force, with help from the Columbia Homeless Outreach Team, are finding permanent housing for people who are homeless.

"A shelter may be  temporary, but if we can get them into a house, it has been proven that its more successful as far as enabling them to stay in the house," Schisser said.

According to a study by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, with rapid re-housing, or "housing first" people exited homelessness in two months on average. 

Reynolds said after the Task Force and Outreach Team gets a person who is homeless into secure housing, the issues that have caused them to become and remain homeless can be addressed. He said the task force plans to work with landlords and property owners to acquire adequate housing.

Schisser said that it needs to be a community-wide effort in order for it to work.

Meanwhile, the Columbia Homeless Outreach Team goes out every week to check on each unsheltered person in their records.

"We want to make sure we're starting to engage with them and make sure that they're not slipping through the cracks," said Katie Burnham Wilkins, the Homeless Program Coordinator at the Truman Veterans' Hospital. She is also the lead facilitator for the Functional Zero Task Force and the Columbia Homeless Outreach Team. 

After team members engage and build a relationship with a person who is homeless, they match the person with a case manager who guides them through the process, Wilkins said.

Then, case managers help them get identification, like birth certificates and social security cards; apply for benefits; and find landlords who will work with them.

"When I walk down into Flat Branch Park five years from now, I don't want to see anyone living there," Wilkins said.

Patricia and Sid Howard are in their own home again, though they managed their struggle before the housing first initiative came to Columbia. He works at Turning Point now, too, helping people overcome the problems the couple once faced. 

Supervising editors are Katherine Reed and Allison Colburn.

  • Fall 2016 public health and safety reporter. I am a junior studying magazine writing journalism.

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