Cold weather puts homelessness front and center

FRIGID NIGHTS of the sort that we have been experiencing this week beg the question of whether Columbia's homeless have proper shelter.

Fortunately, Columbia's Winter Homeless Shelter, with a little more than 200 beds, is open. But while we suspect the shelter will function better than it ever has before, now that it is operated by The Cooperative Ministry and the USC School of Medicine, it alone isn't enough to meet the needs of the city's homeless. There are an estimated 900 homeless people in Richland County - and that estimate is quite likely low.

While the city and others make gallant efforts to ensure people at least have some place to go to keep warm, the fact is that simply trying to keep homeless people from freezing to death during winter months isn't enough. The Oliver Gospel Mission, which focuses on turning around lives, does what it does well, but its reach is limited; the same can be said for other shelters, programs and advocates who work tirelessly to help the homeless. The bottom line is we aren't doing enough.

To have even a decent shot at reducing the number of homeless people in the Midlands, governments, committed advocates and others must pool their resources and devise a comprehensive approach to homelessness that helps people get on their feet and live better lives - year round. The need is real, as illustrated by the latest count of the homeless in the 14-county area that includes Richland and Lexington counties.

The 2009 count, released in November, found 1,368 homeless people in the counties of Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, Chester, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lancaster, Lexington, Newberry, Orangeburg, Richland and York. Of that number, 1,006 were from Richland and Lexington counties, with the lion's share in Richland.

Anita Floyd, vice president for community impact for the United Way of the Midlands, said the results were based on a one-day "snapshot" taken the last two weeks of January 2009. She noted that the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in a year is estimated at three to six times that number.

Although its results are not exact, the survey conducted every two years reminds us that homelessness is yet with us and must be dealt with.

The Midlands Housing Alliance's proposed transition center, to be located downtown, isn't the answer in and of itself, but it gives Columbia its best hope to reach a comprehensive solution. The coalition of business leaders, churches and service providers raised $11.6 million to build the transition center, which is expected to open in the first quarter of 2011. The 214-bed, state-of-the-art facility will be designed to help homeless individuals become productive citizens.

How will this community respond? Will it come together and make a collective difference in the lives of some of its most vulnerable and needy citizens?

Once - a time that seems ages ago now - this community's homeless advocates, providers and others had coalesced around a community blueprint, and local elected leaders in Columbia and Lexington and Richland counties were on the verge of fully embracing it. But it all fell through. Another opportunity is now before them. They must not blow it and again leave the homeless out in the cold.