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Community must join renewed effort to help homeless


AS THE MIDLANDS sorts through the rubble left by a senseless power struggle over how best to serve the homeless, the direction the community should move in is clear: Instead of going back to the drawing board, it should go back to the blueprint.

That blueprint is the 10-year plan this community developed to address homelessness. Had the community, once solidly behind the United Way-produced plan, followed that road map, efforts to help the homeless would be well under way. The blueprint was drafted by local agencies that work with the homeless and approved by local governments. Among other things, the plan called for creating a regional rehabilitation center, establishing a site-selection committee, coordinating services provided by various government and charitable organizations, and providing additional affordable housing in the city.

But local governments failed to empower a commission to oversee the effort, and Columbia City Council snatched control and began making decisions that alienated providers and advocates as well as Lexington and Richland counties, potential funding partners.

We could spend the rest of this editorial focusing on how badly Columbia and others botched this effort, but it wouldn't be productive. It's time for all involved, from the city to Lexington and Richland counties as well as providers and advocates, to come together once again and work together to end homelessness.

Fortunately, members of the faith community have stepped up to lead the renewed push. Not only can the newly formed Columbia Interfaith Homeless Coalition help garner valuable support and resources from faith groups, but it also can help rebuild the relationships and momentum lost when the effort disintegrated last year. The coalition, which includes local churches and businesses, held its first meeting this week.

The city, which continues to work to establish a pilot program that would place homeless people in homes or apartments and expects to operate emergency shelters again this winter, has yet to acknowledge it can't solve this difficult communitywide problem alone. But it needs to officially embrace and pledge support for this effort. While government can help provide resources and create a welcoming environment, it needs the help of the many more capable -- and appropriate -- agencies in our community that serve the homeless.

The community must rally to make this second attempt at a comprehensive solution to homelessness successful and recover from the disappointment of last year. Many were excited about the homeless initiative, particularly after the success the community had helping Hurricane Katrina victims. The thought was that if Columbia could unite and pull off such a successful relief program for guests, it could do the same for its homeless. Once and for all, it seemed, Columbia, which had failed to serve the homeless adequately, was going to address this long-standing problem. Sadly, things fell apart.

But the coalition of faith groups brings new hope. If all involved return to the table with a common heart, mind and mission, this community's homeless stand a great chance of receiving the level and quality of services they need to put their lives back together.