Columbia’s Winter Shelter closed for the spring Thursday morning, sending hundreds of the city’s homeless back outside at nights.

“250 people are headed nowhere,” said Billy, a 56-year-old homeless man who’d been staying at the Winter Shelter. The shelter’s exact capacity is 240, but the fact remains: Living arrangements are up in the air.

Billy, who withheld his last name, listed the same potential sleeping spots as many others facing the same predicament: parking garages, abandoned houses, the woods. If there is an unoccupied nook or cranny downtown, odds are the homeless scoped it out Thursday night.

Cooperative Ministries Executive Director David Kunz, whose organization helps fund the Winter Shelter, said there will not be enough beds in other area shelters to absorb the 240 homeless who left Thursday morning.

“The good majority of them will be sleeping outside,” Kunz said.

This happens every year. The shelter won’t reopen until October, so downtown residents and business owners will have an increased number of outdoor neighbors throughout the warmer months.

Steve Rowland, owner of Drake’s Duck-In on Main Street, said his problems are about to multiply: panhandling during lunch hours, drunken confrontations with customers, defecation and urination in front of his store at night. He’s owned the restaurant for 40 years, and he says he knows people who have been homeless that entire time and made no attempts at getting jobs.

Steve Rowland, owner of Drake's Duck-In

“I didn’t inherit the responsibility for these irresponsible people,” Rowland said. Every morning, he has police escort his manager into the store in case someone is sleeping on the front porch again.

Dorothy Thompson, who runs T.O. Thompson Jewelry Repair with her husband Harold, said she’s more concerned about prisoners being let off at a nearby bus stop than about the homeless, whom she sees as mostly harmless and in need. Still, she said she had to put up a chain-link fence last summer to keep people from sleeping on the stairs behind the store.

Is it safe to go downtown at night? Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter said that only 2 or 3 percent of Columbia’s homeless are criminals, and that they tend to commit more property crimes — specifically auto break-ins — than violent crimes.

“Homelessness is a public health concern, not a police concern,” Carter said. “The enforcement end, to us, is not as important as trying to line them up with the right services.”

What if the Winter Shelter were kept open year-round? Certainly, some people would get complacent and learn to call it home.

But for the ones who are still trying, a shelter is a chance to save money. Here’s a common scenario: A man stays in the Oliver Gospel Mission’s transient dorm for 30 days, at which point shelter policy dictates he has to leave for 14 days so his bed can be offered to someone else. For those first 30 days, he has no housing costs and can save his money toward more permanent living arrangements.

For the 14 days outside the mission, though, he can either live on the streets for free — and run the risk of being robbed in his sleep or arrested for urban camping — or he can check into a hotel room. He chooses the hotel.

Say the man pays  $40 a night at the hotel. Over 14 days, that costs him $560. In other words, he’s paying a month’s worth of apartment rent for half a month in a hotel. So much for savings.

When it comes to nighttime on the streets, one thing is different this year: the Clean and Safety Team. Funded by private donations and a special tax on downtown businesses, these goldenrod-clad guards patrol the downtown area. Their job is broad-ranging, but part of it is to move homeless people along when they’re caught sleeping downtown.

Until recently, the yellowshirts (as they are nicknamed) would call it quits around 11:30 p.m. Homeless people knew this, and they waited until then to lie down.

Now, the yellowshirts have a third shift that goes late into the night. There are two ways to look at this:

  1. The streets will be safer at night. Daniel Long, the team’s homeless outreach coordinator, called the yellowshirts “the eyes and ears of law enforcement” and said they’ve helped solve several crimes downtown with the cooperation of the homeless.
  2. Things might get ugly at night. For some, like my homeless friend Tommy Capps, the late-night shift means it’s hard to get any sleep. When I stayed outside with him one night, we got to sleep around 11:30 p.m. and woke up at 4 a.m. For a few days after the night shift began, Tommy got almost no sleep.

Tommy has expressed concern about the volatile mix of persistent yellowshirts and tired, frustrated street sleepers. Tommy is himself non-confrontational and carries no weapons, but all it would take is one belligerent homeless person to turn things awry.

“One of them could make 20 of us look bad,” Tommy said.


  1. Edna Boroski

    So are there any realistic options for those who want to make a difference for these people? Who is working on a solution? Any agencies? Organizations? This seems so huge. Multiply it by the number of towns and cities who have a homeless population. This would seem to be a call to action. Thank you for being our eyes and ears.

  2. Paul Bowers

    When I talked to David Kunz, he said people with Cooperative Ministries were working on some ideas. The Midlands Housing Alliance is building a new homeless center that could alleviate some of the problems, but the city still hasn’t ponied up the funds to actually run the place.

    Really, it comes down to budget priorities. Do you spend money on an animal shelter or a homeless shelter? That’s a more controversial question than it should be.

  3. Karen

    I have known homeless people are around ~ in every city ~ yet…before you began this blog, I never realized how they survived. This has definitely opened my eyes! The last question you posed, Paul, “Do you spend money on an animal shelter or a homeless shelter?” is one that is much food for thought. Where I teach, each year a drive is done for the local SPCA ~ now to find out how to help our local homeless shelter ~ whether through school or church. I know of the shelter here in town as our church provides meals twice a month ~ I am wondering what else we can do..

  4. A large part of the solution is for those of us who profess to be Christians (and I say it that way because I am a Christian and we have specific instructions on how to handle this, I am unsure of other world religions) to step up and follow Jesus and be obedient to God’s Word. In Isaiah 58 the Bible tells us what to do. Currently I have 2 men living with my wife and I and it has its challenges but it is what I am called to do as a Christian. Churches need to be equipped and educated to live in a mode of outreach and not confine outreach to a ministry or event, but as a “modus operandi”. We have a ministry that helps equip those within the church as well as churches themselves to BE the church in the lives of the homeless. That alone is a HUGE part of the solution.

    • Paul Bowers

      That’s amazing, Philip. I’ve often wondered about taking someone into my home, and it seems like there’d have to be a strong trust relationship in place.

      And yes, the imperative to serve the poor is especially strong for Christians. It is, after all, a major part of the reason why Sodom burned (Ezekiel 16:49-50).

  5. yoddle lee

    I read through all your posts, gotta say very impressive that you went out there and did it. I came across this site because I was researching people that became homeless willingly, because I wanted to try it myself. Naive, but something that’s always been on my mind.

    I’m surprised your youtube videos haven’t gotten more views, this is real and honest stuff. I was not aware of the extent of urban camping laws; how are homeless people supposed to not live on the streets when they have nowhere to live? It might be different in California, but probably not by too much.

    I’m impressed that you tried this homeless stint to better the lives of homeless people. I wanted to try this mostly for selfish existential reasons. I wanted to see what it was like to live just to survive, and also to record my experience. Romanticized suffering and adventure.

    What mostly turns me off from this idea now is the danger. It’s all fun and games until you end up in the hospital. While I’ll admit that near-death experiences have made me appreciate life, it’s only a hair length away from losing everything.

    Great writing too, much better than my response.

    • Paul Bowers

      Well, shucks. I’ll confess that “romanticized suffering and adventure” were not far from my mind when I first set out on this project, but I received a brutal reality check when my roommate and I got held at gunpoint.

      I don’t know that I’d recommend this to anyone. If you do decide to do it, you need to have guides with you — trusted friends who’ve lived on the streets and are willing to stick with you the whole time. If not for Tommy, Ernest, Dawn and Big John, I might not be alive today.

  6. Tracy

    Where is my son? He was at the Winter Shelter now I do not know where he is???????

  1. 1 Homeless in Columbia … on TV! « Homeless in Columbia

    […] ministry; he’s still roughing it outside and keeping his wits (and his wit) about him. As for Tommy, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. I’ve heard he had some hard […]

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