July 31, 2014

Editorial: Columbia homeless coordinator process too rushed

WHAT’S THE likelihood of even the most prepared provider being able to craft a polished, comprehensive plan to coordinate homeless services in a four-county area in 15 business days?

WHAT’S THE likelihood of even the most prepared provider being able to craft a polished, comprehensive plan to coordinate homeless services in a four-county area in 15 business days?

We’re going to find out. That’s how much time Columbia officials, working through the Central Midlands Council of Governments, gave organizations interested in coordinating homeless services in Lexington, Richland, Fairfield and Newberry counties. We’re no experts on homeless service delivery or procurement, but that seems like too compressed a time frame in which to develop an effective plan to address one of our community’s most pressing problems. The best thing we can say about it is that it’s better than the original plan to give organizations only 10 days to respond.

This is yet another example of Columbia’s inexpert response to homelessness. While we commend City Council for engaging the issue in recent years — after having long ignored it or worked against providers’ efforts to find sites for shelters — it remains frustratingly unclear what the seven-member body is trying to accomplish.

For a while, it seemed the council was headed toward an aggressive policy aimed at forcing the homeless out of downtown and — temporarily — into the city’s winter shelter that was converted to a 24/7 operation; there were tentative discussions about establishing an out-of-town shelter as a long-term solution. But the city has now shuttered its emergency facility, and little has been said about a long-term shelter plan. The council apparently now wants to direct its response to homelessness through a contracted regional coordinator.

We agree that the community would benefit from a more coordinated and comprehensive effort. But the short turn-around time to submit proposals suggests either that Columbia doesn’t understand what it takes to put together the complex plan — or that it already knows who it wants to have this contract.

Just how complex a job would this be? The homeless coordinator would be required to work with organizations, service providers, agencies, local governments and public and private stakeholders across the Midlands.

The scope of work would include coordinating homeless services, housing, transportation and food-sharing and meal services. A coordinator or team would be required to identify and “own the gaps” or deficiencies not addressed by existing entities and seek solutions. It also would provide education and training aimed at preventing homelessness, review and consider zoning regulations to help create affordable in-fill housing, be a liaison between providers and law enforcement, prepare homeless-court recommendations, provide reporting on homeless statistics, coordinate efforts to increase employment among the homeless and disseminate information regarding panhandling.

It’s worth asking whether providers would readily cooperate with a coordinator handpicked by Columbia. We would hope they would for the greater good, but the city hasn’t always had a good relationship with providers. Many providers already coordinate some efforts, with the United Way being a major player, along with dozens of other organizations. Should the city have tried to support and expand that network rather than look for its own coordinator?

The city, which will fund and administer any resulting contract, asked Central Midlands to oversee the search for a coordinator, given that this effort would require crossing multiple jurisdictional lines.

It’s a safe bet that some providers will meet the Aug. 8 deadline, but 10 days doesn’t strike us as enough time to ensure a quality, competitive pool from which to select someone for this important work.

Part of the council’s bumbling search for a comprehensive approach to homelessness included a communitywide request for information that generated feedback from several groups. Perhaps city officials felt that process and the fact organizations knew the search for a homeless coordinator was coming prepared them to respond quickly.

But any organization expecting to land this contract must work with others to form alliances needed to address the many issues it includes; getting buy in from multiple players could be time-consuming. We aren’t convinced the Aug. 8 date allows time to craft thoughtful, well-designed plans.

Whether this effort is successful or not, it is good to see the city embrace the need to coordinate providers’ efforts. The best way for Columbia to help is to provide resources and support and create an environment that allows the experts to do their job: meet the needs of homeless citizens.

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