Home > Uncategorized > From Idea to Homeless Shelter in 4 Days

From Idea to Homeless Shelter in 4 Days

So obviously this Corona Virus thing is crazy. As it developed my life changed. As a City Councilperson I go to a lot of events. As a consultant/trainer I meet with people, mostly groups. Suddenly work mostly dried up and everything started cancelling. I had a lot of free floating anxiety and surfed Facebook and Apple-news and read up on the virus and it’s implications.

Since I’ve lived in Columbia I’ve worked with individuals and families who were homeless and have had some success on the clinical and local public policy level. I follow the issue and do what I can. When I left my agency job my brother John and I started 4-A-Change, a social entrepreneur firm. Our largest contract is with our downtown Community Improvement District where we do outreach, coaching and referral for folks who are homeless or panhandling downtown.

So we follow the issues and know the folks. John joined the board of Room At The Inn our inclement weather shelter that moves from church to church. It wrapped up for the season just as Corona hit. John organized a big tent and sleeping bag initiative for the transition.

We started thinking about how Corona was going to effect our peeps. We don’t have clients, we partner with people and affectionately shorten it to peeps amongst ourselves. We know them, love them, and try to make life better for them whatever we’re doing.

There was chatter about a shelter opening but the requests to the emergency management system weren’t being addressed. So John looked up foreclosed houses after seeing some houseless folks had occupied some in California, so far successfully. John and I are more then brothers but organizing partners with a deep analysis and a long history of radical action.

I’ve also been on City Council for 8 years, I said before we do that let me ask the City Manager to make something happen. But we committed to do ensure folks had a place when their was community spread. We agreed no one was dying in the streets in Columbia if we were free and well. If that went no where I would ask the banks for a couple of foreclosed houses. If that went nowhere we would do what we needed to do that was just and right and necessary.

On Saturday morning I called the City Manager. Validated the struggle and asked funds I had championed for a homeless work program be allocated for this and a staff without current duties project manage. I offered to help. He agreed to email the Health Director. I clarified my request and offered technical assistance as I am a topic expert.

She said there was no one to project manage and thought I had the knowledge and skill to do so. I agreed to serve under the Social Services Director Steve, my long-standing collaborative partner, who I’d lost touch with because of our different roles of late as a citizen volunteer project manager. Not a bad start for a Saturday morning,

I got up to speed and we started working on a lead on a great space that needed rehab identified by the past Chair of the Chamber of Commerce, Susan. I pushed my contacts but that turned out to be a bust. Steve had been asking for university dorms every day for a week. I asked if I could ask the Vice Chancellor and was told wait until Monday. He’s still clearing the dorms of students.

More brain storming we got a lease offer on a shuttered motel and started trying to talk the price down to our budget. Susan suggested a call to our Conventions and Visitors Bureau. It’s funded by a guest tax and a board of hotel/motel operators help run it. It seemed like a long shot but we were hesitant to ask churches. They sheltered folks all winter and we were afraid of everyone in a big room on cots.

I also had a coffee date on Saturday. She was cool with me on my phone half the time trying to keep it moving forward. Sunday hotels started calling. I started making my case and trying to touch hearts. There were offers which surprised me but the history is in free fall and it’s an emergency. They were also well out of our modest budget.

Truth be told I’m a terrible negotiator. I’m a social services/counselor type and low income radical. I just laid my cards on the table and asked them to do right. Then a hotel manager called at a place I would have called a little troubled. I’ve gotten to know the low budget hotel scene well placing folks, staying out on a budget and looking at a couple with a community minded land investor who was shopping for one and interested in programming for homeless Veterans.

We immediately made a connection talking from the heart and I showed I knew and respected that part of the no real housing safety net who spent most of their money on electric bills for those crappy little room heaters. She said I need to talk to the owner but between us he was already doing the same thing on a small scale with a church group.

The guy called me as I was trying to find the house of my second date (coffee went well in spite of my distraction) that I was an hour late for taking a call on the way over and pulling in to a closed daycare. Ironically a dude with a wild beard talking to himself had been sheltering out of the rain when I pulled up. He started pacing in front of the car and yelling about following him. I was so focused I just rolled down the window and said “hey man it’s nothing about you but I’m on the phone”. He escalated and I started the car just in case but kept on task and I apparently out weirded him and he moved on.

It was productive conversation but I said I’m an hour late for my date can I find her house and tell her what’s going on. I did and found her house and said hi and got on the phone and finished my business. I texted my “boss” and we were doing a lot of math and thinking and texting and we decided to go for it. We had a site, if we can navigate legal for the contract and actually get to spend the money we’d identified. It was a great deal.

John and I and Steve some (Steve has a big portfolio of emergency response, this is like his third priority) had been thinking about logistics some but it really depended on space and resources. So with nary a “woo hoo” we got a site (probably) we were on to logistics planning. My date and her daughter were cool with my distraction. They got to watch it happen in real time.

So yadayada details, negotiations. Logistics. We have this grand scheme of City money, Room At The Inn (RATI) cots sand supplies, volunteer infrastructure and a small staff, chamber of commerce/United Way gap funding and inkind donations of construction if needed, the anarchist collective who work on homelessness and us and others who want to plug in.

We had queried RATI staff to see who was willing and able to come back to work. RATI had money left and they’d pay that. And we had some tentative plans in our tentative place by Sunday night. A nice weekend of effort.

Monday morning we had a conference call with homeless service providers. I pushed the urgency, the need to move quickly and what our plan was. Outreach workers will staff the shelter in the day. RATI on overnights and John and I and trusted volunteers would do evenings.

I’d been lead on site obtainment and bureaucrat wrangling. John is lead on logistics and planning. We can switch up like that effortlessly. We’re also housemates and we were home office before it was de rigeuer. I got off that call and called in to the right wing radio show to update conservative radio listeners on the current state of affairs. I also pitched the shelter and got rescheduled for the show tomorrow to tell people how they can help.

I’ll be on at 11:06 am CST with Gary Nolan, card carrying member of the Libertarian Party, your equal opportunity offender on 93.9 The Eagle: 939theeagle.com. Give a listen if you want to hear me live.

So we’d still like dorms for when/if our folks need to quarantine . We’ve just documented community spread. When one person who is homeless is positive likely they’ll all need to quarantine as they congregate at the Day Center. So kept on that. Kept on making the money flow (win) we have enough to operate until April 6th and the next Council Meeting so my peers can weigh in.

Still need contract and law is swamped like most everyone who responds to crisis. We have a Counselor/Manager form of government so our Health Director who reports to him writes the laws right now. We’ll get to weigh in as elected representatives in a couple of weeks. The law changes as the disease progresses and we step up our social distancing and close inessential risk points. I’ve stayed out of that in spite of of a public campaign to get our local elected leaders to order our professional staff to make stricter orders. It’s tough in Missouri. It’s tough to act in isolation when 28 other counties use as a jobs and retail center and we have no control over them. The conservatives say we’re too strict telling people what to do nanny state run amuck. The liberals say I’m killing our medical professionals by not ordering our paid professionals who are looped in and have been planning for this for their entire career and we should interfere because some people sent us an email.

I don’t know the answer. No one does really. I back my professional staff who we hired to manage these situations. On homelessness I’m an expert. Steve who is super knowledgeable and looped in yields to my superior knowledge, expertise, and experience. Always has. I’ve been doing this a longtime and lot of it defies reason if your not s topic expert. Public Health is the same but more so. So is City Management.

I wrote an angry reply to the last chain email I replied to. She rightly checked me. I apologized and we dialogued. I’m on my third day of 16 hour days and I’m writing this because I woke up at 12:30 and my mind is humming. It’s like campaigning, you’re in your own fast paced world, jamming most of the time. Everyone else is bored and watching Netflix.

We also wrote guest guidelines, infection control procedures, room grid assignments sheets, a call for volunteers and more logistical stuff. We got outreach workers out and invited our first 14 guests. Our first cohort are our easy ones. We want a positive start and a good foundation. We are going to ramp up the mutual aid approach in case everything goes to shit and everyone is sick and there’s no internet and we have to get through this.

Even in the best of times the homeless life is mostly brutal and short, they’re all trauma survivors and almost all are high risk with challenging behaviors. I am bringing them together and allying myself and pledging my time, treasure and health so that together we can survive as community of support. Right now only John and I know this. Now you do too.

Everyone can’t do what I am doing. I have a Masters degree in sociology with a deep analysis of society and inequality and social movements. I was an activist radical direct action and large statewide campaigns with significant victories around the country. I have a 30 year career in social service in a variety of jobs at all levels from line staff to Executive Director. I am a 3 term city Councilperson who is kind of establishment and I do it well. I’m looped in from the crack addicted bus boy to the bank president. I have spent my entire life planning for this and did not know it. The day before yesterday I made a phone call and tomorrow we open. You might not be able to do this but you can do something.

Mostly it’s empowerment. I do, because I believe I can, and having done so, I believe I can do more. When I was a case manager at a domestic violence shelter people would ask how I could work with all that horror. When I did batterer intervention and substance use disorder counseling people said “how can you do that kind of work?”

People in crisis are open to change. That is powerful and demands our best effort. Guess what Peeps, the whole world is in crisis. Why not join me in building that new world that is more just, fair and loving from the bottom up. If it works for those with the most barriers and the least resources it’s going to work for all of us. God bless you and keep you through these dark days. When it’s the darkest we all shine the brightest.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Melissa Clarke
    March 29, 2020 at 9:22 am

    Is there a place where we can be updated as to supplies needed? I am aged out of front line work and have sent money. What else can I do?

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