Summit aims to find ways to end homelessness in Boone County

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COLUMBIA - Around 350 people, including more than 200 children, are homeless in Boone County, according to the Boone County Basic Needs Coalition. A summit Thursday and Friday will bring people together to discuss how those numbers can decrease.

The 2016 Columbia-Boone County Homelessness Summit is the result of collaboration among Heart of Missouri United Way, the City of Columbia and Boone County.

Steve Hollis is the human services manager for the city and works in the Boone County/City of Columbia Public Health and Human Services department. 

"The summit's goals are to raise awareness about homelessness, but also to provide information about current best practices and efforts at the national level, and thirdly to come up with about three smart goals that we will set out to do as a community," Hollis said.

A major theme of the summit will be Housing First - a program geared toward providing the homeless with stable, affordable housing before other needs, like education and health care, are met.

Housing Program Supervisor Randy Cole said, "Communities have found it to be more effective than leaving it to the police department or emergency rooms to take care of those needs that come into play with homelessness."

Cole said he will speak at the summit about houses that are unstable, which means they might lack plumbing or kitchens or the occupants pay more than 50 percent of their monthly income on housing costs. For about 7,500 households in Columbia, renters pay more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing costs, Cole said. People in those situations are at risk of becoming homeless. 

Cole said the cost of housing is rising due to increasing labor costs, land prices and interests rates. 

Hollis said, "We've been working really hard on this issue trying to house chronically homeless persons and veterans in the last few years, and I think we're seeing the fruits of our labor. We are still challenged by increasing rates of poverty, increasing rates of housing affordability issues and then also in this state we have not expanded Medicaid, which has been a challenge for us because healthcare's a key part of ending especially chronic homelessness."

Hollis said the summit is the first time the city is bringing in national thought leaders to address homelessness.

He said summit speakers want to explain the different populations of people who are homeless because some people have misconceptions.

"The vast majority of homeless people in the country are actually families who are living in places that are not their own," Hollis said.

Almost one hundred people who registered for the event took a survey. More than 12 percent said they have been homeless before, and about 45 percent said they have a close friend or family member who has experienced homelessness.

The summit is free and open to the public. Those who did not register can still attend.

"Really we're just interested in folks coming down and hearing from these, these great guests that we've got and we'll make room for everyone," Hollis said.

He said after the summit, local leaders will prepare a plan to help families with children, unaccompanied youth, veterans and chronically homeless people.

"We will use community input literally to guide the objectives and priorities for, say, the next three to five years," he said. 

Hollis said people who want to help end homelessness should volunteer or donate to local shelters and nonprofit organizations.

Turning Point is one agency that provides the homeless with meals, laundry services, showers and supplies. Heath Shipman, a homeless man who uses Turning Point's services, said the agency is a good resource for people who are new to Columbia, because staff will make sure they have basic hygiene supplies like toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Cole said, "People don't realize there's a lot of good agencies in our community that are doing a lot of great work to address these issues. The main concern or issue that they have is they need more resources to be able to do more of the good work that they do."