As a Columbia motel was transformed Thursday into an emergency homeless shelter, a resident who couldn't pay his rent was evicted and couldn't understand why he was being made homeless.

As the shelter created by Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp and his brother, John Trapp, moved people into the Welcome Inn on North Providence Road, Jerome Middleton was told to move out.

Middleton has lived at the hotel for just under a month and paid $220 a week in rent, he said. He lost his job with Tiger Tinting and More about 10 days ago as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

When rent was due Thursday and Middleton couldn't pay it, the hotel gave him half an hour to clean out his belongings and find somewhere new to stay while temporary residents signed into the rooms surrounding him.

“You're going to kick these people out, the ones that have been living here, paying all this money, kick them out, and then the people from the program, they get to live here free — that's not fair,” Middleton said. “You know, everybody is out of work. Nobody has no money.”

A contract between the city and the hotel is pending that would allocate $10,000 to pay for the rooms. Until that agreement is signed and in effect, AAAAChange, a consulting firm operated by Trapp and his brother John Trapp, will cover the cost, seeking donors to help defray the cost. 

When asked about Middleton, Trapp's voice accelerated from stress. He has been working 16-hour days, setting up the shelter under the pressure of a descending pandemic, he said.

“We can't help everybody, as much as there's a need, who are on the streets already, and we can't pay the rent for everyone who has an existing relationship with the hotel,” Trapp said. “We're bringing in some volunteers to help rehabilitate, we've done everything right, we need to be treated gently and with respect.”

The Welcome Inn, which has low occupancy because there are no travelers, is a private business and is letting Trapp's organization have the rooms at a discount.

The Trapps began working to prepare the rooms earlier this week and Thursday was the day they began moving in people identified as most vulnerable to COVID-19 if they remain on the streets.

Boone County went under a stay-at-home order at 8 a.m. Wednesday. By then, Trapp and his brother were on their fourth day of securing housing for people who are homeless at the pop-up COMO Crisis Shelter.

The first residents were taken on a first-come, first-serve basis. By Saturday, about 60 people are expected to have shelter at the inn.

The work so far has shown that more volunteers are needed to help the shelter progress, and many people are struggling to find the homes they're required by law to take shelter within.

“I want to make sure that everybody in the community is taken care of, but I want to start with the folks at the bottom, and I want to work my way up,” Mike Trapp said, “and if we do that, then all of us are going to be taken care of, and all of us are going to get safe.”

The shelter's scene

COVID-19 moves fast, so the setup of the COMO Crisis Shelter had to as well. It began as an idea less than one week ago to repurpose the hotel for people who wouldn't normally have places to stay.

Trapp said people who are homeless often have shortened life spans due to complications with mental illness or substance use disorders, “so if COVID is striking down people in their 70s and 80s, it means that they're going to strike down my people in their 40s and 50s and perhaps younger.”

City Manager John Glascock allocated $10,000 on Saturday, and they'll use the money to keep the shelter running through April 6, when the council will vote to determine if the city will continue funding it.

The shelter offers more than just room for people to socially distance, Mike Trapp said. Volunteers and organizers are also setting up medication-assisted treatment, checking for COVID-19 symptoms, making sure people wash their hands and sanitize their rooms, helping people quit smoking, separating people as they queue for rooms and offering food when they can.

Not all are helped

The issue with Middleton came up as the vulnerable people were moving in.

Middleton, 53, said he signed up to get a room at the COMO Crisis Shelter one day before he got evicted, but he hasn't been allocated a room.

During the first few days of the setup, people were allowed into the hotel on a first-come, first-serve basis, according to Mike Trapp. By Thursday, they started to reserve beds for “people with high levels of vulnerability.

This category includes families and people in wheelchairs, for example, he said.

Meanwhile, Middleton was packing up everything he owned.

“I have nowhere to go,” he said.

He is going to have to put his belongings on the curb and try to figure out what comes next.

“So all my stuff will be sitting there, so I don't know what's going to happen,” Middleton said. “They're probably going to end up sending me to jail because I have nowhere to go.”

Trapp said there was nothing he could do.

“Those were processes that were in place, and it happens in the hotels, and I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do about it,” he said. “We have to manage with what we have, and we have to take people into the shelter who are the most vulnerable, and that's all I have to say.”

Work pushes forward

For organizers of the shelter, work keeps on coming.

John Trapp said they are fixing another 10 other rooms at the Welcome Inn to be ready for guests by next Friday. They are also searching for housing to quarantine people who are homeless and test positive for COVID-19, because they can't stay in this shelter for fears of spreading the disease.

“I would like to shelter in place and not put myself at risk,” Mike Trapp said.

His voice revealed his stress again, this time with a crack.

“I would like to hang out with the 4-year-old that I love whose mom is a health care provider, and now I don't get to see them until this is over because this needs to be done. But it needs to be done.”

Then he collected himself.

“It's really hard to tell people (about the shelter) because they don't understand the urgency; they don't understand that everybody who was homeless was already in crisis,” Mike Trapp said. “They don't understand that they're medically fragile individuals who are going to die.

“They don't understand that if COVID gets into the homeless population, that they're going to overwhelm the hospitals, and even if nobody else gets it, then people are going to die because they can't get into the plagued hospital while they're having a heart attack while a bunch of homeless people are there because no one taught them to wash their hands,” he added.

More help is needed, according to a Facebook post written by John Trapp on Monday. They will have one-hour-long volunteer training session Sundays at 2 p.m. and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., which are limited to seven people each, so trainees can learn while maintaining safe distances from each other within a conference room.

Mike Trapp said volunteer positions are for people who aren't in the at-risk category. Those who want to help but don't feel safe leaving their homes can donate to AAAAChange LLC at 10 E. Leslie Lane, Columbia, MO 65202.

“If you message me I will provide you details on getting involved,” John Trapp wrote in his Facebook post. “The darker it gets, the more we get to shine.”