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Side Effects is a health news service exploring the impacts of place, policy and economics on Americans’ health.

Winter weather and a housing shortage are making it difficult for some to find shelter

Sebastian Martinez Valdivia
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Side Effects Public Media

At the Broadway Diner in downtown Columbia, Missouri, owner Dave Johnson is used to serving unhoused people.

When they come into his diner, Johnson feeds them and offers help, but he often gets turned down. Nevertheless, he can’t help but notice the effect of the cold weather. He recalled looking at the hands of one recent patron.

“I kind of took a sly picture and asked a doctor friend of mine, ‘Is that frostbite?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah that’s frostbite and it’s really bad,’” Johnson said.

Johnson has noticed more people in Columbia concerned about homelessness recently, particularly through involvement with his diner’s KIND program, which started as an effort to feed kids when Columbia Public Schools shut down at the start of the pandemic. The program has now shifted to feeding anyone in need.

Johnson also has a little free library in front of the diner to provide cold weather gear free of charge. He gets choked up talking about the unhoused people he serves.

“It’s a shame, because they are our society and they’re not being served by our society, and they’re not benefiting from being part of this society," Johnson said. "It just really gets me going.”

People experiencing homelessness are extremely vulnerable to illness. While there’s no official count of deaths among the unhoused, the nonprofit National Health Care for the Homeless Council estimates between 17,500 and 46,500 homeless deaths occurred in 2018.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, homelessness was on the rise nationwide. COVID disrupted data-gathering on how many people live in shelters and on the streets, and the latest federal data, released this month, suggests a decrease from January 2020 to January 2021. But those numbers may not tell the full story, since last year’s homeless counts — in Columbia and many other cities — were postponed or canceled due to concerns over COVID-19.

Steve Hollis suspects the numbers are up in central Missouri. He’s a human services manager with Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services. Shelter has been a major issue in Columbia, Hollis said, as the pandemic has exacerbated the affordable housing crisis.

“We have dozens and dozens of housing choice vouchers assigned to folks and we simply cannot find housing for them,” he said. “We are just seeing a lot of new faces in the last year or so.”

KBIA file photo
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Those vouchers are supposed to help very low income families access affordable rental housing. The nationwide housing shortage means more people rely on local shelters. The Wabash Bus Station, which serves as an emergency overnight warming center, has been the heart of debate over Columbia’s unhoused individuals. While the city views it as a shelter of last resort, advocates have pushed for it to be open more often.

The city council was initially resistant to raise the temperature threshold to open the Wabash station shelter. But after a protest, and pushback from activists like Maxwell, the council recently voted to increase the threshold from 9 degrees Fahrenheit, to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness calls for community-wide, coordinated approaches for delivering services, housing and programs that assist the most vulnerable, increase employment and income and help people find permanent supporting housing.

Renée Maxwell, a leader of the local volunteer group Operation Safe Winter Columbia, said she would like to see more action from city leaders.

"Our city continues to drag their feet on doing something about that and they keep pretending like they’re doing the best they can, but they’re not doing anything,” Maxwell said.

In the meantime, Safe Winter has started a fundraiser to buy more tents for a supply drop at the end of February.

Hollis cited staffing difficulties as one obstacle plaguing his department. The local omicron variant-driven spike in cases has stretched the city’s resources.

Maxwell’s group provides tents and other supplies to unhoused people. She expects it will take years to get a full-time emergency shelter up and running.

Stay in touch: sign up for the Midwest Checkup by texting "Health" to 73224.

This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes KBIA and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Follow Sebastian on Twitter: @sebastiansings.

Copyright 2022 Side Effects Public Media. To see more, visit Side Effects Public Media.