Staggering statistics, including 240 Columbia Public Schools students identified as homeless, 179 homeless households and over 1,200 households on the Columbia Housing Authority’s waitlist, led local agencies to partner together in hopes of gaining public input on a comprehensive homeless services center.

Community members and representatives of Columbia Housing Authority, Love Columbia, Loaves and Fishes, Turning Point, Room at the Inn and Voluntary Action Center gathered Thursday night at Broadway Christian Church to give and receive input.

“Seeing everybody coming together to address this need, it felt like, ‘We might actually do this now,'” Mayor Barbara Buffaloe said during her opening remarks.

Each table was assigned a facilitator to work with the group as they discussed potential plans for the center. At the end of the allotted time for small group discussion, a handful of facilitators were given the opportunity to share what their group had discussed.

Paul Whatley, member of the Housing and Community Development Commission, spoke on behalf of his group and their desire to see a wide range of populations utilize the new space, including senior citizens, mothers with young children, individuals with service animals and individuals suffering from substance abuse issues.

“Once we get this building up and operational, it’s our job to keep it operational,” Whatley said, citing the importance of volunteers.

Another idea brought to the table by community member Dianna Douglas focused on the need for mentors who can assist people facing homelessness and housing insecurity — assuring that once they are back on their feet, they stay on them.

“If I’m homeless and I show up here, I am assigned a case manager that will see me from day one … not just when I make it from the shelter to transitional housing to my own home,” she said. “Once I am in my own home, I still need to have that contact of making sure my life is going OK and I’m not going to end up back on the streets.”

According to the City of Columbia’s comprehensive homeless service center plan list of required facilities and services, the city is hoping to build a housing resource center, provide day center services, meal services, an overnight shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing and supportive services on the new campus.

Local groups highlight need

Each group representative was given time to speak about how their organization directly aids Columbia’s homeless population, their hopes for the new campus and why it is necessary in the city.

“We need to preserve and increase our capacity for permanent supportive housing,” said Randy Cole, CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority.

Love Columbia works with the homeless population in aiding in “moving individuals from instability to stability,” co-founder and executive director Jane Williams said.

Loaves and Fishes provides meals for homeless and housing-insecure individuals every night of the year. The organization, which is operating out of the basement of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, touted the need for additional space as the group continues to serve meals to over 100 people each night, coordinator Ruth O’Neill said.

Brad Bryan, executive director of Turning Point, echoed O’Neill’s sentiment of the need for additional space as Turning Point also operates out of the same church.

“The community need has outgrown our capacity,” he said of the program meant to be temporary that recently celebrated its eighth anniversary.

Room at the Inn, which celebrated its 14th anniversary this year, was also meant to be a temporary solution to the need for shelter from frigid temperatures. That organization is also seeking a permanent space for its shelter to end the need for frequent moving of supplies and cots from church to church, executive director Debby Graham said.

“Tonight is a great start,” Ed Stansberry, executive director of Voluntary Action Center, said of the discussions among community members and organizations.

The center plans to continue to lead efforts to find a space for an opportunity campus that would provide permanent homes to Room at the Inn, Turning Point, and Loaves and Fishes.

This past winter, the conversation around the need for a shelter like the one discussed Thursday night centered around the limited room at Wabash Bus Station, which currently acts as a temporary emergency overnight warming center. The station is the only shelter in the area that has no barriers for entry.

Members of the public gathered in outcry against the low threshold temperature and the need for additional space for shelter from the cold, leading city officials to raise the cutoff temperature from 9 to 25 degrees.

Lauren Tronstad covers local government and politics for the Tribune. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @LaurenTronstad.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Groups gather input on comprehensive homeless services center