Providers urged to work together to solve Columbus' homeless problem

As Columbus gears up for a two-year program designed to combat the area’s homeless problem, one community leader urged those on the front lines to work together.

“I am encouraging all of you to work together,” said United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley President Scott Ferguson. “You have got to give up the territory, you have got to give up the ego. A true collaboration means giving up.”

Ferguson’s remarks came Tuesday as more than 60 people from about two dozen public and private organizations and agencies gathered to discuss Zero: 2016, a national initiative focusing on homeless veterans and those who are considered chronically homeless.

Zero: 2016 is supported by Community Solutions, a national nonprofit organization. There were 67 communities across the country selected and Columbus/Russell County is the only one in Georgia or Alabama.

Columbus was chosen for this program for a reason, Ferguson said.

Home for Good, which has been operating for nearly three years and was formed out of the city’s task force that developed a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in Columbus, is the lead local organization in Zero: 2016. Home for Good was incubated by the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley.

Rabbi Beth Schwartz of Temple Israel in Columbus leads the area’s continuum of care.

“It is scary when part of the challenge is to give something up so that it creates a synergy that makes the whole bigger and better,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said the focus must be on those who are homeless and not on the individual agencies.

“We need to make sure people who need a home, get a home,” she said. “... Right now it may seem like a challenge, but it is doable.”

Two months ago many of the people at Tuesday’s meeting at the conference room at Midtown Medical Center were involved in an effort to count the local homeless population. That process revealed that on Jan. 26, there were 149 people slept unsheltered; and another 135 slept in local shelters. Of that number, 53 were identified as chronic homeless and 22 were veterans.

“We did not count everybody on that survey,” said Home for Good Executive Director Christie Bevis. “Did we miss some people? Absolutely. Could we do a better job? Probably. But this gives us a baseline for this effort.”

The goals established for Zero: 2016 are to house 78 veterans by the end of this year and 89 of the chronically homeless by the end of next year. Bevis urged those who represented agencies from the Homeless Resource Network to the Veterans Administration to be creative in their approach to that problem.

One of the reasons that this effort has a chance to be successful is the Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers that are currently coming into the city. Through the end of this year, the city is receiving more than 250 HUD housing vouchers worth more than $1.8 million to help address the issue.

Information collected in the homeless count is one of the components being used to identify those is need of the vouchers.

“If we let this opportunity pass us by, shame on us,” said Len Williams, director of the Housing Authority of Columbus. “This is a once in a generation opportunity. These types of resources won’t come along again?”