A Night at the Shelter” was wonderfully directed by Caryl Bryan and Nora Dietzel five years ago this week. With a dedicated and energetic cast portraying the lives of 12 homeless folks and four shelter volunteers, the two standing room only performances served several non-theatrical functions.

While the purpose was to humanize both the homeless and the people who volunteer to serve them during what was National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, the event inadvertently brought together hundreds of members of the Columbia community who were concerned with, and some actively involved in improving, the lives of the unsheltered.

I wrote the play based largely on observing a season, during 2012, of a Room at the Inn that was located in a vacated landscaping center on Old Highway 63 near Stephens Lake.

At least every Monday, I volunteered to help straighten up the place, pick up some grocery items or drive a guest on an errand. I mostly hung out, talked and listened and learned when homeless guys get along and when something flashes up and tempers flare.

I was most impressed with the human relations skills of the manager, a last-minute hire, who himself had been homeless, abused, incarcerated, addicted and beat up and just generally not like any of my academic colleagues. He could cook, keep the peace and was a keen observer of the situations, moods and needs of about 16 men and sometimes a woman or two.

A peak experience was watching the Super Bowl at the shelter with about a dozen guys who often had trouble remembering where they left their backpack on the bus route or what time they were supposed to take their meds but could recite details of Super Bowl I with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967.

Becoming more aware of homeless men and women around town, I learned about Loaves and Fishes, the dinner soup kitchen; Turning Point, a day center located at Wilkes Boulevard Methodist Church that provides showers, laundry and mail services; and Love Inc., a multi-service provider for low income people, especially those with families.

I learned about government agencies that affect low income housing and social services, usually hearing about a homeless person’s frustration with a caseworker or medical provider. I learned about homelessness from the ground up.

Most important for me were the couple dozen guys I have kept up with, usually at the Columbia Public Library if not at Room at the Inn, the young woman who I transported and encouraged during her pregnancy and the few guys I checked in on every now and then.

In the past decade, I witnessed drug overdoses for the first time, stood between two guys who thought they were entitled to the same space and drove two guys to court multiple times while their cases where “continued” over and over again. I’ve seen that frost bite can result in amputated toes. At least a dozen guys I got to know are no longer with us: several died of natural causes, two in an apartment fire, one was hit by a car on his bike, several died of drug-related causes.

About half the homeless I’ve dealt with seem to have transitioned to housing and a sheltered life. Like college students, no two unsheltered men or women are alike. Like college students, you seldom know their full story, what path they are really on nor where they end up.

My decade of observing Columbia’s volunteer homeless services and network of volunteers leaves me grateful and optimistic. Loaves and Fishes serves about 100 dinners 365 days a year through a network of volunteers, mostly through churches. Room at the Inn has housed about 50 people a night from December to March in volunteer churches around Columbia.

In addition to the direct emergency service organizations in Columbia, there are many people and groups not easily visible who provide breakfast to 25 to 50 people several times a week or provide tents and sleeping bags to more than 50 men and women a couple times a year. Several downtown churches provide Saturday breakfast all year around. There is a woman particularly concerned with homeless folks who have pets who she seeks out and shares her pet food.

Yet, five years ago I would have predicted that the Columbia community would have established a more permanent, slightly larger, stable facility for homeless services to operate. While reasonable people can disagree about how best to do this, it is a failure of government, faith-based and nonprofit leadership that a suitable facility has not been established. I know, I know: Everybody is busy with something or other.

Meanwhile, there are no hygienic sanitation facilities downtown, our oft-publicized “heating and cooling centers” have reduced hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic and bus transportation is inadequate.

As we enter this pandemic winter, Loaves and Fishes continues to serve dinners and Room at the Inn is preparing to operate between Dec. 13 to March, 14, 2021. Due to the generosity of the Unitarian Universalist Church, who has opened its facility for the entire period, and to the city of Columbia’s funding to rent the Eastwood Motel on the Business Loop, there will be emergency shelter for several months this winter.

Because the majority of volunteers at Loaves and Fishes and Room at the Inn are near, or past, retirement age, COVID-19 concerns will require that younger staff be hired and paid, thus increasing funding need.

For those who are able, personal involvement in Loaves and Fishes or Room at the Inn is best, but 2020-2021 may mean that instead of personal volunteering, we use Como Gives or direct contributions to support efforts to care for the unsheltered. There are many reasons to ensure that all communities care for the least, the lost and the lonely, not the least of which is to better understand ourselves and our place in the world.

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