Private group might take over Columbia’s homeless shelter

cleblanc@thestate.comJuly 15, 2012 

  • More information COMING MONDAY: A closer look at the works of Christ Central Ministries

A coalition of activists and city leaders is crafting another proposal for addressing Columbia’s long-standing problem with homeless people downtown.

The plan calls for Christ Central Ministries, a privately funded religious organization that specializes in helping the homeless, to take over the city’s winter shelter near the Congaree River.

Christ Central also would operate a clearinghouse there to direct the homeless to the array of services available in Columbia. The clearinghouse would not consolidate services. But it would help the homeless navigate the sometimes duplicated services from competing providers, something homeless advocates have been arguing for.

Downtown Columbia is a regional gathering place for the homeless, who know they can find a generous, although hodge-podge, range of services. But the city has long been torn between being sensitive to the needs of the homeless and maintaining downtown as a thriving, safe place to live, work and do business.

Christ Central Ministries is to present the plan to City Council during a 2 p.m. work session Tuesday at the former Eau Claire town hall.

If approved – and many obstacles could stand in its way – the clearinghouse or “triage” portion of Christ Central’s operation would allow the city to cut back on the $600,000 it spends yearly on the shelter near the city’s water plant near the river. Within five years, Columbia would be out of the business of housing homeless men and women and taxpayers would be spared the financial burden, said newly elected Councilman Cameron Runyan, who is spearheading the effort.

“This is the first stage of getting the city out of the winter shelter business,” Runyan said Friday. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Still, the proposal has the potential to reignite battles with downtown neighborhoods. Four years ago, they put up strong resistance to what would become Transitions, a homeless aid center at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue that provides day services, referrals and some beds.

“Why are we not working together on this?” asked Ellen Cooper, president of a coalition of six Elmwood Avenue-area neighborhoods. She learned of the plan Friday from a reporter. “I’m amazed that neighborhoods have not been consulted or at least told about this.

“I know we would have some concerns,” Cooper said, adding that she plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting to hear details.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said he supports a better solution to getting the homeless off city streets.

“We’re going to take a much more aggressive position to reducing homelessness, the appearance of homelessness and to putting people back on the road to self-sufficiency,” he said.

Benjamin said the City Council that previously drew criticism from advocates for the homeless has changed. Five of the seven members did not hold their seats during earlier fights over the placement of facilities.

The draft plan calls for the city to pay Christ Central $558,400 to run the winter shelter this coming winter, including feeding meals daily to the people who fill the 240-bed facility, Runyan said. Currently, many homeless people go to downtown’s Ebenezer Lutheran Church for meals; the city pays for security at the church.

Runyan estimates the first year’s savings would be about $180,000.

For each of the next four years, the city’s contribution to the shelter would drop on a sliding scale to 70 percent of the annual cost, 50 percent, 30 percent, 10 percent, then zero, the at-large councilman said.

The shelter would become a proving ground for a larger triage center in the future, Runyan said. “When we want to get serious about solving the problem, we’re going to have to scale up the solution,” he said.

The proposal had been more ambitious. Efforts to establish triage services, akin to a hospital emergency room where people are evaluated by specialists and directed to the specific service they need, were dramatically scaled back just within the past week.

Runyan had been working with Christ Central to open about a 5,500-square-foot center at the organization’s Columbia headquarters, Hope Plaza, at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue, where Christ Central now offers church services and morning coffee and doughnuts from a small building.

That site is directly across Main Street from Transitions, which is at the northern gateway to the Main Street retail corridor.

Transitions is a 64,000-square-foot, public/private facility touted when it opened in 2008 as a similar answer to Columbia’s growing homelessness population: a fuller-service center to get homeless people off the streets as well as a location where often-competing providers could come together.

“That location is where it needs to be to address this issue,” Runyan said in early July of the Hope Plaza site. “You’ve got to do it where the (homeless) population is. I want to fix the problem, not just Band-Aid it.”

Runyan would not say why the more ambitious Main Street/Elmwood Avenue plan was set aside.

But the city is close to reaching an agreement for construction to start on its largest and most ambitious downtown neighborhood – three blocks from the Christ Central property. Greenville developer Bob Hughes is in negotiations with city leaders on a zoning and construction plan for the 181-acre, tree-dotted campus that once housed the state Department of Mental Health.

And the Main Street corridor likely would greet the center with skepticism. The city has been nurturing Main Street, working to improve its business climate and its image. Benjamin, in fact, has staked his re-election on Main Street’s revival.

Efforts to reach City Center Partnership director Matt Kennell on Friday and board chairman Boyd Jones last week were unsuccessful.

Need is clear, answer is not

The Rev. Jimmy Jones and Runyan agreed the Main Street site was the best place for a fuller-service center.

“Somewhere, there needs to be triage done,” said Jones, founder and president of Christ Central, which operates 89 programs for the homeless in 38 locations across South Carolina. “It is the utmost key to solving the (downtown homelessness) problem.’’

David Parker, a physician and researcher at the University of South Carolina who has worked with the homeless for more than a decade, said the Christ Central plan is worth examining.

“Before anyone starts being overly critical of a proposed solution,” Parker said, “they should hear people out. Obviously, no one has the answer, so it’s going to take all of us to come up with an idea.”

The plan for the new center “may be blown up 20 times along the way,” Runyan said. “I just plan to persevere.”

Christ Central’s volunteer staff would screen people not only for the shelter but for medical, mental health, substance abuse assistance, job training or other needs, Jones said.

The clearinghouse likely would reduce the number of homeless people who make their way to the county library on Assembly Street or to Finlay Park, just off Assembly, and discourage them from wandering city streets in search of their next meal, Runyan said.

Some will say Transitions was supposed to address those problems. But Transitions has proved to be a partial answer to the city’s homeless problem, some advocates and residents say.

Runyan said he approached Christ Central about the center after evaluating the range of services it provides, including at its 10 Columbia sites.

“They are just good at what they do,” Runyan said. “They’re just a proven player. They have 14,000 volunteers with a mandate to help their fellow man. These are educated professionals, doctors, engineers.”

Because the organization has facilities in many counties and cities, it can direct homeless people from out of town back to their own communities to get the help they need, Runyan said.

Further, Christ Central accepts no public money, Jones said. It thrives using private contributions and the time of volunteers.

Runyan said that should relieve competition with other providers who rely on federal and local grants. The new center would not result in the city ending the $250,000 it budgets annually for Transitions or the Housing First program that helps a handful of disabled homeless people through more permanent housing, jobs and other longer-term solutions.

Old wounds

Divisions over a Main Street location for a shelter have split Columbia at least for 13 years.

In 1999, a city agency granted a special zoning exception to allow the Salvation Army to open a shelter where Transitions opened 10 years later.

Neighborhoods fumed over the zoning decision. Resistance reignited in 2008 when a coalition of business leaders and activists for the homeless, criticizing the city for not addressing the homeless, decided to use the building’s existing zoning to build Transitions when the Salvation Army moved out.

Five downtown neighborhoods banded together to fight the plan by the newly created Midlands Housing Alliance. The battle included an appeal of the zoning decision and later a lawsuit by the Elmwood Park Neighborhood Association.

The rhetoric was heated.

“Why are the downtown neighborhoods, who have been courted for years by City Council to come stay downtown … and provide a tax base for us – why are the downtown residents bearing the brunt of this social problem?” Cottontown attorney Stephen Fitzer asked at the time. “The misery should be spread.”

In 2006, a city-sponsored panel of local leaders endorsed a plan for a shelter on Hampton Street, about a half-mile away. Neighborhood leaders there and two City Council members objected, so council decided to open a center – not a shelter – on that site. But public and political pressure killed that plan.

In what was billed as a temporary solution, the city instead built an emergency winter shelter near the Congaree River. The Beach Co. of Charleston, which was building the nearby CanalSide neighborhood, threatened to sue if the shelter was to be permanent.

The city also created its own housing program, which scatters homeless people and families into apartments around Columbia. That program, called Housing First, is still in place and costs the city about $250,000 annually. It helps about 25 people yearly, many of whom have serious disabilities, Parker said.

Still, Housing First angered some advocates for the homeless, who said it did not address the larger homeless population.

In 2007, the Midlands Housing Alliance bought the Salvation Army site for about $7 million. But the coalition needed $3 million to $5 million from local governments to match a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation, as well as up to $2 million for annual operating costs.

After another tug of war with the city, the alliance spent $12 million to open Transitions. Transitions has 202 beds and offers day services that help about 360 homeless adults daily, said its new director, Craig Currey. The 50-person staff manages a 24-hour operation, Currey said.

But advocates say it’s clearly not enough.

Worth a try

Before last week, when the bigger plans for Main Street were still alive, Runyan said he expected strong opposition again, especially from the Main Street business community and adjoining neighborhoods.

But as a resident of Elmwood Park, one of the neighborhoods closest to the site, he said, “I’ve got a lot of skin in this game. I believe in this.

“If it blows up, just throw me under the bus,” the first-term councilman said. “Throw me out (of office).”

One way or another, Transitions said it would continue to extend its services. If a new triage center is created, Currey said Transitions could work with it.

“My intent would be to continue providing beds to folks,” he said. “Maybe how they come to us would change. Maybe they would send us more people.

“The day center could take some more,” Currey said, maybe 20 to 50 more people daily.

Parker, who runs Columbia’s Housing First program, said the Christ Central plan deserves full consideration.

“At least in the 13 years I’ve been involved (with the homeless), there’s been no magic bullet. So we have to keep talking, and we have to get something done.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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