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Sheltering is Not Enough

September 6, 2013

Over the last few weeks, our community has been engaged in a highly public debate about how the city deals with our homeless brothers and sisters. Although this conversation has been heated at times, I believe all sides have made very valid points about how this city has handled (or not handled) homeless services in our community to this point. But I have been disheartened that in all the “solutions” presented to this point, this conversation has failed to adequately address the root causes of homelessness and what role the city, in partnership with local advocates and agencies, should play in addressing real solutions to help end homelessness.

The current conversation has centered around sheltering the homeless but I fear that conversation, although it has to be addressed, has taken center stage. We have lost the focus on how to assist the homeless and help them get access to life changing resources.

Many people have accurately identified that the homeless population is not monolithic. We in Columbia, like every other city in our nation, have diverse groups of people living on our streets. Our homeless population is made up of people who have mental illnesses and/or substance abuse issues, veterans, ex-offenders, people who have been hit hard by the economy and even families with children. There are even a number of working poor who unfortunately do not earn enough to obtain adequate housing.

As a small business owner, I have empathy for those in our downtown business districts who have expressed their concerns. The concerns are understandable but we must find ways to handle this matter in humane way that will ultimately yield positive results.

One plan, program or solution will not be sufficient to address all of these problems. The solutions considered need to be as diverse as the populations that need to be served.
Some solutions that have been absent from this conversation are the need for more mental health professionals, job training programs and affordable housing.

And just like one program cannot address all the issues, neither can one government agency, volunteer group or non-profit organization. This is a global problem and it is going to require a global approach in order to identify solutions that will benefit the community as a whole.

There are multiple studies, research documents and statistics available about homelessness, but we must add the human element in order to develop a multi-faceted long term comprehensive plan that addresses each population that requires help. We need mental health experts, veterans affairs advocates, affordable housing professionals, government leaders, social workers, and law enforcement officials at the table – just to name a few. Columbia is the home of progressive leaders and caring citizens and I know that we can work together to effectively address this issue.

A short term option is needed, but i also hope the focus of this discussion soon turns toward long term solutions that will address the reasons why people are homeless. Until we do that, we will simply keep spending our time on finding ways to provide shelter and not how to decrease and hopefully end homelessness.

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