Efforts by Columbia leaders to stem the number of homeless residents congregating in the city’s downtown are being criticized by civil rights groups. However, the councilman who sponsored the plan says opponents misunderstand what the city is doing.
Acting on the complaints of businesses and some residents, the city council voted unanimously last week to approve a plan that would try to move hundreds of people into the city’s winter shelter on the edge of downtown. Once there, they would be given meals, showers, a bed, and then connected with nonprofit groups and other providers that could help them with substance abuse and job services.
“What we’re talking about is opening up a relief valve for them so that now they have a place where they can shower, use facilities, get services you need, (and) where they can sleep,” said Councilman Cameron Runyan, who sponsored the initiative.
However, the plan would also require police to step up their presence in the city center and more tightly enforce loitering and vagrancy laws (such as public urination, sleeping in parks, etc.). Some civil liberties groups worry that could lead to abuses by police.
“This plan may be overly broad and sweeping,” ACLU South Carolina executive director Victoria Middleton said. “It could lead to profiling of people, because how are police supposed to know that someone is homeless? Citizens shouldn’t be rounded up and detained on the basis of how they look or where they happen to be.”
Although the organization is reviewing Columbia’s plans, Middleton said the ACLU is not planning any legal action at this time.
Runyan said the shelter would still be optional for the city’s homeless. “You are allowed to refuse that help, but you are still going to be subject to the laws of this city just like you are now,” he said. “You’re not going to be allowed to sleep in public. You’re not going to be allowed to use the bathroom on the sidewalk. And you’re not going to be allowed to panhandle.”
There are other questions about the proposal’s goals. For example, the shelter only operates in the winter months. Columbia officials estimate they would need an additional $1.2 million to operate the center through March 2014 (when a new long-term plan would take effect). A local nonprofit Christ Central Ministries has agreed to help make up the difference for now.
It’s also not clear if the shelter’s 254 beds would be enough for 1,500-plus homeless residents estimated to live in Columbia. Runyan said the shelter was never full last year largely because its staff did an effective job of connecting its residents with help elsewhere.
However, homeless advocates say one of their biggest concerns is that those taken to the shelter would not be able to leave. The city would only offer vans shuttling homeless residents to other services, but they would not be allowed to walk back towards the city center (the shelter’s location is bordered by the Broad River on one side and Interstate 126 on another). Police would patrol the area around the shelter.
“[This is the] most comprehensive anti-homeless measure that [I have] ever seen proposed in any city in the last 30 years,” Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told online news site ThinkProgress. “Using one massive shelter on the outskirts to house all a city’s homeless is something that has never worked anywhere in the country.”
But business owners say something needs to be done. “I am very concerned that Columbia’s downtown has become a magnet for homeless people,” Ben Arnold, president of a local property management firm, said in a statement. “(The environment is) not only making our employees, tenants, and residents feel uncomfortable, but also hindering our ability to attract new residents and businesses to downtown.”