Amidst pandemic, Columbia shelters adapt to extreme weather conditions

Shelters in the area couldn't exceed certain capacity limitations during dangerous weather conditions.

By EJ Haas

Extreme cold conditions between Feb. 14 and Feb. 22 caused MU to cease on-campus operations for a day. ABC 17 News issued a Weather Alert on Feb. 16, claiming “conditions will struggle to improve and temperatures will be dangerously cold.”

As inconvenient as the weather may have been for students, it posed a serious danger to homeless individuals. According to a news release from the nonprofit Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, some contracted frostbite or hypothermia — forcing them to seek medical attention.

At these temperatures, frostbite could occur in as little as 30 minutes.

Resources like warming centers and shelters remained open to the extent they could, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hindered their ability to accommodate people in need of residence.

Individuals in shelters had concerns about their stay. Charles Leroy Southern, Jr., an unhoused former military member in Columbia, stayed at Room at the Inn COMO during the cold days. He woke at 5 a.m. and left the shelter in March due to fear of his possessions being stolen or damaged.

Were Southern to fall ill as a result of the extreme cold, he’s not sure where he’d go. He was recently discharged from a local hospital for health reasons unrelated to the weather or COVID-19 and is concerned about additional expenses.

Lori Benson is the regional director of community relations for the Salvation Army in both Columbia and Jefferson City.

According to Benson, Columbia’s Salvation Army House reduced from 61 to 45 beds due to COVID-19 regulations.

St. Francis House, a men’s shelter operated by the Columbia Catholic Workers Christian anarchist organization, was forced to close its doors to visitors due to many of their senior volunteers’ risk levels.

“Part of the mission of the Catholic worker is to comfort the afflicted,” Columbia Catholic Worker Steve Jacobs said. “We asked [our benefactors and volunteers] to buy tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes, and bring them over [for] the people who couldn’t get into the shelter.”

Benson said the Salvation Army saw an increase in need for overnight cots, which they tried to arrange while following social distance guidelines. Employees moved cold cots into the cafeteria space to create room for additional people, who were given free masks and sanitizing supplies. Cold cots are available annually throughout the winter.

“[People] can check in about 8 [p.m.], and then they have to be out of the shelter at 7 [a.m.],” Benson said. “Because of COVID, our shelter could no longer be a day warming center and maintain the mandates [from] the county.”

Arrangements are made the next day for people to seek shelter elsewhere. The Activity & Recreation Center on Ash Street, Boone County Government Center on Walnut Street, Wabash bus station, and Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services all remain active as day warming centers. The Salvation Army arranges morning bus routes to each of these locations.

St. Francis House remains closed.

“We still haven’t opened up yet, but we’re planning to reopen back up in April,” Jacobs said. “We just tried to help as much as we could, without everyone here getting sick and possibly succumbing to the virus.”

Charlie Recchia contributed to this story.

Edited by Joy Mazur | jmazur@themaneater.com

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