Editorial: Broad-based response needed to tackle Columbia homelessness

December 27, 2013 

Residents line up for a meal along the wall in the main room of Columbia's 24-hour emergency homeless shelter on Williams Street. The shelter provides food, housing, clothing and services to help people transition into live-in facilities.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

— WHILE THE verdict is mixed on how effective Columbia’s round-the-clock homeless shelter has been in its three months of operation, the city won’t be as successful as it can or needs to be long term if it isn’t able to bring providers, advocates and others to the table.

State staff writer Clif Leblanc’s Dec. 22 article updating the status of the shelter made two things clear: The impression of the shelter’s success depends on whom you ask, and we still lack a coordinated communitywide response to homelessness.

City Councilman Cameron Runyan, the author of what he promises will be the first step toward a comprehensive plan to address homelessness, and Jimmy Jones, whose Christ Central Ministries is running the shelter for the city, believe some progress has been made in reducing homelessness in the city center. But some of those who operate businesses in and live near the city center say they haven’t seen a real difference.

Obviously, it’s going to take time and sustained effort to bring significant change. It remains to be seen whether the city’s renewed effort to address homelessness will be successful.

But the level of success that can be achieved would be appreciably improved if this community — city leaders, Christ Central, homeless providers and others — came together and crafted a comprehensive plan to aid some of our region’s most vulnerable and needy citizens. Homelessness is a communitywide problem and will be effectively addressed only with a communitywide plan and support. No one person or entity owns this issue or has all the answers.

Both Mr. Runyan and Mr. Jones complain that providers and others aren’t helping as much as they could. Without a doubt, it’s important for individuals, businesses and providers to come to the table and help address this problem. But that’s a two-way street. City Council and Christ Central must be willing to share this issue, from having the right kinds of conversations to creating an inclusive environment for serving the homeless to being willing to compromise.

It’s encouraging that Columbia, led by Mr. Runyan, is willing to tackle this sensitive and sometimes controversial issue. This won’t be an easy task by any means. As the city moves toward developing a long-term response to homelessness, it needs to communicate to the public and providers

Quite frankly, there are still some who are bothered by the constant talk about removing the homeless from the street, seemingly at all costs. With some providers such as Transitions and Oliver Gospel Mission still located downtown, what does that mean for their efforts? What does it mean for the efforts of the churches and others who have fed the homeless for years?

It’s great that Mr. Jones and Christ Central have been willing to take on this issue, but they can’t do it alone.

This can’t be simply about removing the homeless from the streets of Columbia; it must be about providing them the help they need to turn their lives around. No one person or entity has all the answers. Egos must be checked at the door, and sincere efforts must be made to develop a comprehensive approach that puts all the resources, talents and compassion we have in this community to work helping improve the lives of the least of these.

We understand the need to ensure that homelessness doesn’t create such a nuisance that it spoils the shopping experience and hurts businesses downtown. But even as police are asked to tighten up on vagrancy laws and efforts are made to route more homeless people into a shelter, helping improve their lives ought to be a top priority.

The city has promised a process that will allow people and entities across this community to have input in addressing this important concern. It must live up to that. If it doesn’t, the ongoing, long-term problem we have had in trying to address the needs of the homeless will be just that — ongoing and long term.

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