In recent months, a coalition of community leaders and homeless citizens have developed a plan for a year-round homeless shelter and service center in Columbia. As the economic crisis drives even more of our neighbors into homelessness, we are calling on city officials to devote the next round of federal housing dollars to making this plan a reality.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy, many Columbia residents were barely making ends meet. In Columbia, 13.6% of the population lives in extreme poverty and, officially, 268 of our neighbors are homeless. The real number is higher. The official count does not necessarily capture people who are housing insecure and living in cars or bunking with family and friends.
Each number stands for a human being that deserves shelter and food, comfort and safety. If you don’t know where you are going to sleep, you are constantly living in survival mode, and trying to build a life for yourself is out of the question. All of us are impoverished when one of us is unsheltered.
Faith Voices of Columbia fosters multifaith cooperation to address the root causes of injustice and to advance racial equality and economic dignity. Through a series of community conversations, we have identified our frayed patchwork of social services as one of the root causes of the city’s troubling poverty statistics. While many groups are doing heroic work to serve our most vulnerable neighbors, our efforts are hampered by the lack of a year-round shelter and permanent service center.
Concern about gaps in services extends beyond the bounds of faith communities. Last year, attendees at a meeting sponsored by the city’s Fair Housing Task Force agreed that Columbia needs a year-round shelter and more robust services for individuals transitioning out of homelessness, ideally delivered from a central location. The City Council’s 2019 resolution on the allocation of federal Community Development Block Grant funding states, “Priority shall be given to projects that prioritize the community’s efforts to work towards a functional zero for individuals that are chronically homeless.”
Out of an August 2019 assembly sponsored by Faith Voices came a working group with representatives from local agencies, including Turning Point, Voluntary Action Center, Harbor House, St. Francis House/Loaves and Fishes, All Youth Flourish and Phoenix House, as well as four unsheltered Columbia citizens. They have drafted a vision and mission statement and service plan for a new shelter. The inclusion of homeless residents in the planning process is critical. We believe that long-term, positive social change can only come about when oppressed people’s agency and dignity is honored by their full inclusion in the leadership process.
In Phase 2, we are looking for people with specialized knowledge to help the community fund, build and operate the service center until homelessness and extreme poverty are a thing of the past in Columbia. New CDBG dollars to address the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic are coming at a providential time in our community’s efforts to mend the social safety net.
We are asking you, the reader, to do two things. First, contact the mayor and your city councilperson and urge them to earmark these new dollars to the construction of a year-round homeless shelter and service center. Second, if you or someone you know is a good candidate to participate in Phase 2 of establishing this facility, please share this information with Faith Voices organizer Brittany Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columbia has many amenities to be proud of. In the future, let’s take pride in one thing we lack: a human community scarred by extreme poverty and homelessness.
Marvin Lindsay is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Columbia and member of the Faith Voices housing justice team.