Wonder what Columbia’s homeless shelters are like? Here’s a snapshot

2 months ago

Have you ever been to a homeless shelter? Have you spent real time in one (volunteering or whatever)? Most people have absolutely no idea what it is like. Most people have never had any real interaction with our neighbors facing homelessness.

It seems to me that we would be a lot closer to solving our homelessness problem if more people had real experience with those who are facing it.

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I am in The Salvation Army Harbor House is the number of little kids who might be there. Would you believe that there are plenty of times when we have five or ten small children running around?

Honestly, sometimes it is no different than visiting the mall, seeing the young mom of so many kids, so full of energy, and she is doing her best to keep them under control. Really, the kids have no idea what is going on; they are just kids like any other, living their lives and having fun, day by day.

Yes, it can be extremely cute and extremely sad, all at once.

And by the way, The Salvation Army Harbor House is still the only place in Columbia you will get to see this because ours is still the only shelter that allows parents with children (and there are no plans for this to change). When we do not have room for one or more families, I am sure you can guess that it can get pretty dark, pretty fast.

Room at the Inn is another great homeless shelter in town. For a long time, they had no permanent location and bounced around, mostly from church to church, a few weeks here and a few weeks there, and just during the winter months.

Today, Room at the Inn has a semi-permanent location that a local VFW is lending them, and then the plan is for them to move into Voluntary Action Center’s new Opportunity Campus when it is finished being built. It should be a great option for people who really need them.

Each night, they open their doors to adult men and women who have no place else to stay – maybe they had been camping out, or couch surfing and they ran out of couches, or something like that. They line up at 6:00 p.m. and fill bed after bed in a big, mostly open room and get a little something to eat and drink. Some have recently fallen on hard times; some are long-term living homeless; and some are mentally ill or living with an addiction or a hundred other issues.

Each night, men and women play cards and board games, read, talk, or just drowse until lights off (and of course there are those biding their time until the one smoke break at 8:00, which has to tide them over until 6:00 a.m. wake-up).

An interesting thing is that shelters can often make you forget that racism even exists at all. The facilities are always pretty heavily integrated – majority white, of course, but with plenty of diversity. When everybody around you has so little, there is remarkably little hierarchy and things such as racism have very little place at all.

These are just a couple of tiny splashes of life in a homeless shelter. People who really are an awful lot like you and me are doing what they need to do to survive, and looking for fun and laughs and comfort where they can find it. Plenty of them never thought that in a million years they would find themselves in a homeless shelter.

All of them need us and deserve our help.

Major Kevin Cedervall is a leader of The Salvation Army in Columbia. The Salvation Army provides a wide range of community services to address poverty and other issues, seeking to rebuild lives and create lasting change.…Read more by Kevin Cedervall


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