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We Can Do Better

Late this afternoon a homeless man appeared at our office door. He'd been drinking and was a tad belligerent. He wanted to spend the night in our church. I recommended Room at the Inn (RATI) instead. RATI is a homeless shelter that rotates between various CoMO churches from December through March. I walked him over to our sister church that's hosting RATI this week. We will host RATI February 10-17.

Along the way the man ranted about sleeping in one place, then another, and being turned out early every morning. I gathered he'd had more experience with RATI than he initially let on. "What's the use in keeping me alive overnight only to kill me the next day? Jesus died for nothing!" he said. Part of me thought, "You don't need to fly off the handle, or you're going to die on these streets." The other part of me thought, "If my best option was sleeping here and there, and having to hit the streets early in weather like this, I might be drunk and a tad belligerent myself!"

The man complained bitterly about the whole situation to the volunteer we met at the other church. I wished him well and returned to 16 Hitt St. I was wearing an overcoat and long underwear, but I lacked a hat. It was a short walk, but it left me covered in snow and hurting all over from the wind chill.

Groups like RATI, the Salvation Army's Harbor House, the VA's Welcome Home center, Turning Point at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, and other agencies and ministries provide valuable services for Columbia's homeless population. But it feels like we are nibbling around the edges of this problem. As the Columbia Missourian reported today, RATI lost 18 beds when it made its previously scheduled shift to its current site this week. This drop in capacity sent the city scrambling when the polar vortex descended on us.

What is more, RATI has been operating for a decade now, and the churches are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers to staff it. It's a rickety structure. Our city needs a more unified and robust response to this problem.

Specifically, we need:

  1. A site for a permanent, year-round, 24/7 homeless service center/shelter.

  2. Funding to build the service center/shelter.

  3. An agency with the expertise to operate a center at this level.

  4. A plan for long term funding of the center.

The city is working on a new Consolidated Plan for spending Federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME funds over the next four years. Writing a new Consolidated Plan presents us with an opportunity to establish a permanent center where people who fall into homelessness can find a way out.

The city has been holding a series of meetings to gather public input on its next Consolidated Plan. A public meeting focused specifically on homelessness will be held on February 19 at 6:00 PM at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church. I'm going to attend, and I invite you to join me.

I don't believe that Jesus died for nothing. He still visits us disguised as "one of the least of these" among us. If we fail them, we fail Him, but if we shelter them, we shelter Him.

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