Homeless people committed 500 crimes in Columbia during the first half of the year, the Police Department reported Tuesday.
In response to calls from some neighborhoods for more arrests, Chief Randy Scott issued a report that begins to estimate how much in police resources is consumed right now in dealing with the homeless population.
In my two years as police chief, this is the one single issue that divides Columbia, Scott said of homelessness. Both neighborhoods and Main Street businesspeople want to keep homeless people out, he said. People look at police as the solution . The core business issue of police is not social services.
Of the 500 offenses a number Scott called staggering 330 homeless men or women went to the Richland County jail, at a cost of $34,800 from January through June. The rest were issued tickets.
One of those arrested is a homeless man charged with murder in the slayings of two people in a homeless camp at a public park, Scott told a City Council committee. Columbia had a total of five murder cases during those six months.
And, recently, the three-hour standoff Saturday in a Five Points pharmacy was caused by a homeless man trying to steal drugs, Scott said.
The homeless consumed 375 hours of officers time with a price tag of about $4,600 in salaries, Scott said. That figure does not include court time for officers, judges and courthouse staff.
However, as large as those numbers are, the homeless accounted for less than 2 percent of all the citys more serious violent and property crimes this year, according to preliminary findings that Scott said he hopes to make final by September.
The impact seems magnified because the homeless population is concentrated downtown, Scott said. When mapped, crimes committed by the homeless cluster downtown and diminish in numbers the farther you get from the city center.
The Public Safety Committee took no action Tuesday. But it and city manager Steve Gantt decided to try to get key representatives of churches, other private providers, the business community and police to sit down and try to reach solutions.
I feel like Im repeating a conversation the city had about 12 years ago, Gantt said. I hope our outcome is better this time with new players.
The number of homeless people is growing, Scott said without offering clear numbers. He said in an interview that he believes the tally reaches higher than the 1,200 citywide he said some providers estimate.
Yet David Parker, a USC researcher who has worked with the homeless for 13 years, said weeks ago he suspects the number is fewer than 450 when the total is adjusted for double counting, misidentifications and other complicating factors.
Scott said Tuesday that police are only part of a solution that desperately needs coordination with a wide range of services for the homeless that are available but not organized.
Those circumstances make homeless people move around the city center seeking food and shelter. He presented a map showing a cluster of at least 10 providers in the city center and crime statistics showing the largest number of offenses occurring in the area where they are located: blocks bounded by Lady, Sumter, Elmwood and Park.
After the homeless are fed, there are few bathrooms open to them, which results in public urination and defecation, Scott said.
He also disputed critics who say police are targeting the homeless.
Were not just going out to lock up the homeless, Scott said. But when homeless people commit crimes, police must react. He cited the case last week of a homeless man so intoxicated that he passed out face down on the 1400 block of Gervais Street, creating a public nuisance.
Neighborhoods and business owners have a not in my back yard attitude, the chief said. Im telling you its not in our back yard. Its in our front yard.
The police department is willing to help address the problems, but the issue is community-wide, Scott said.
Much of the responsibility for devising solutions is being directed at a citizens advisory committee recently created by City Council.
That group was to hold an organizing meeting Thursday. But Gantt postponed the meeting until he can meet face-to-face with key leaders to chart a direction.
Councilman Cameron Runyan, who has taken on the knotty issue of homelessness within his first month in office, said he is asking city officials for a full accounting of the taxpayer cost of dealing with the problems.
Oh, Lord, thats not enough, he said of Scotts report. He cited court costs of police cases, the expense of providing security at some of the places where meals are served, the expense of the citys winter shelter and other municipal homelessness programs.
Runyan said Saturdays incident in Five Points which cost the police department thousands of dollars in expenses is a wake-up call if solutions are not found soon.
It is proof in the pudding that homeless people are getting desperate, he said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.