Columbia has upward of 288 homeless individuals. While they are aided by local social service organizations and agencies, that is just a part of the help community members can provide.

So, for those who are not homeless, what can they do to help those who are, or are potentially facing homelessness?

Volunteer with a service organization or provide financial support.

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Those are the two biggest factors a person can carry out to help various service organizations in Columbia. Because of the pandemic, financial assistance is more of a need, as some are having to rely on staff to limit the number of people interacting with the homeless because of the pandemic.

"Normally in the winter we direct people to volunteer at Room at the Inn or the (Loaves and Fishes) soup kitchen," said Steve Hollis, human services manager with the Columbia-Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department.

Room at the Inn in recent years, and especially during the pandemic, has more relied on staff, though there still are volunteers that help, he added. Loaves and Fishes always seeks help from volunteers.

In the meantime, service organizations are in needs of funds, more so now because of the pandemic.

"We are about to release another report from our Como Helps, which I organized as our donations management apparatus during disasters," Hollis said. "The picture is really bleak based on the reporting from nonprofits in our survey about revenues."

Service organizations that normally would hold fundraising events had to either cancel them entirely or find modified ways to still hold them in the last year, either through a drive-thru event, or online auction. A dent still was put in organizations' coffers.

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"Fundraising for most nonprofits is way way down," Hollis said. "The need for donations is tremendous."

Love Columbia, also known as Love INC, is about to finish its February fundraising drive known as 28 Days of Love.

While there are service organizations receiving federal money through the coronavirus relief bill, known as the CARES Act, the money they are receiving is going to providing services and not necessarily toward keeping those organizations' doors open.

This is affecting places like the Voluntary Action Center, which helps provide rent assistance through CARES funds, or Central Missouri Community Action Centers, Hollis said.

The city's Housing Programs division and Human Services try to address this funding gap by helping to pay for some staff time, so agencies can access federal money, he added.

"From what we are seeing, most agencies really rely on fundraising as an important part of their revenue stream," Hollis said. "I would say the vast majority of agencies we've seen, their actual cash donations are way down."

What organizations are out there?

The Daniel Boone Regional Library has a shelters and emergency services guide list on its website. It notes organizations and agencies available for the homeless in Boone and Callaway counties residents also can support.

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Columbia's Housing Programs division also has a document available that lists service organizations aimed at the homeless, those facing homelessness or those in poverty.

Human Services through its partner agencies does all that it can to help the community's homeless, but it also wants to prevent homelessness where possible.

The health department has a nine-page resource and referral guide that not only includes phone numbers for organizations that help provide basic needs, but housing and legal services.

The pandemic-focused Como Helps is a partnership of Boone County and Columbia, the Community Foundation of Central Missouri, Heart of Missouri United Way and Veterans United Foundation. The aim of Como Helps is to work with local nonprofits, community partners, and government agencies to determine community needs during the pandemic, according to its website.

"We didn't think we would run any emergency response for this long," Hollis said.

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Como Helps hasn't been advertised as much recently because it did not want to detract or pull away funds from other local service organizations.

"If folks are not sure who they want to support, donations to Como Helps still are a possibility and welcomed," Hollis said. "It is guaranteed to go to pandemic relief."

Central Missouri Community Action has a resource guide for each of the eight counties in central Missouri it serves. When it comes to housing, it even has links related to tenant rights.

Columbia has a homeless outreach team, which has focused on helping those with substance abuse or mental health issues receive care. Typically staff and volunteers with with the Turning Point drop-in center, New Horizons or Phoenix Programs will visit overnight warming centers to talk with the homeless there and provide information.

"I really can't say enough about our homeless service providers and how much they continue to step up and help out," Hollis said.

Opening eyes through volunteering

While the focus is now more on financial support for social service organizations and agencies, volunteering still has an impact.

"One of the most powerful thing about volunteering at Loaves and Fishes or Room at the Inn is that it is an eye-opening experience for volunteers," Hollis said.

Volunteers have been shocked to learn that those staying at Room at the Inn need to set an alarm to make sure they are up in time to go to work.

"There are a lot of stereotypes about folks experiencing homelessness do not work," Hollis said. "Certainly, some have real barriers to employment, but I think folks are always surprised at how many have to get up in the morning and go to work and are still homeless."

When Room at the Inn is closed, Columbia's homeless have to rely on other shelters, such as the St. Francis Men's House, Lois Bryant Women's House or the Salvation Army Harbor House.

Shelters did not have to cease services during the pandemic, and remained open and operational, through the help of the health department and its COVID-19 safety plans, Hollis said.

There also is the Turning Point drop-in center at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church. Typically open daily from 8 a.m. to noon, they have extended their hours this winter when temperatures were extremely cold.

Turning Point is a place for Columbia's homeless to have a physical mailing address, a place for a shower or internet access and a way to access homeless resources, among others.

"I have always felt volunteering is such a critical piece of not just helping, but helping the community understand the issues," Hollis said. "During the pandemic, it's just really tough."

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Here are two key ways to help Columbia's homeless population


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