Boone County aims to combat housing issues for homeless people

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COLUMBIA - Combating a large homeless population in Boone County remains a major issue. 

According to an annual count of homeless people in Missouri counties, Boone County had 220 homeless people last winter,  the highest rate among 101 counties.

The county is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for communities involved in what's called a continuum of care, a program that allows communities to coordinate efforts to address homelessness.

"Part of the reason why we have the highest homeless population is that we're a successful community, "said Phil Steinhaus, the chief executive officer of Columbia Housing Authority. "People come to Columbia and might end up in Columbia and end up staying here is because there are more opportunities for people."

Steinhaus said the housing authority has received funds from HUD for specific ongoing programs for helping homeless people. One program called Shelter-Plus-Care, provides funding and services for housing for homeless people with disabilities, including people with mental health issues. The other, called the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, aims to help homeless veterans. 

"With Shelter-Plus-Care, we can serve around 65 people," Steinhaus said. "With Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, we can help 143 homeless veterans."

Rick, a homeless person who has lived in Columbia for a few years, said he rather be sleeping on couches and grocery stores instead of sleeping in an emergency shelter.

"It doesn't quite feel safe, it's been locked up," he said.

He's concerned about the mental stability of some people in the shelter and said he's worried about fights.

"I don't need that drama in my life,"  he said.

Steinhaus said the Shelter-Plus-Care program is different than services provided by an emergency shelter. 

"This is permanent shelter," he said. "We're able to get people off the street, connect them with supportive services, and help them transition back into living in independent life."

According to HUD's 2016 report, Cole County has the second highest rate of homelessness with 69 sheltered and unsheltered homeless.