The religious organization that withdrew its offer in July to help fix Columbia’s problems with homeless people in downtown has reversed itself with a scaled-back plan that City Council accepted this week.
Christ Central Ministries will run the city’s winter shelter, which houses 240 people, mostly men, from Nov. 1 to April 1.
The plan City Council accepted Tuesday maintains the controversial requirement that each person who wants to sleep at the shelter is subject to criminal background checks by Columbia police.
Those who stay at the shelter must register and provide identification, which will be verified. That information is shared with police, who then may choose to run warrant checks to see if tenants are wanted on criminal charges.
Homeless advocates have been arguing with city officials that IDs and background checks keep people away from the shelter, possibly putting them back out into the cold.
But the city has insisted on the criminal checks, which scared away all bidders last year except Christ Central as the city moved to find a new private organization to manage the shelter.
Christ Central’s bid was too high last year, and Cooperative Ministries ended up running the shelter. Christ Central was the sole bidder this year, despite pulling out earlier, and now finds itself rushing to be ready within four weeks.
Christ Central will hire on-site private security for the shelter, but its volunteers will not seek to enforce warrant checks, said City Councilman Cameron Runyan, who has become council’s point person on homelessness.
“Last year, one of the problems they had down there was that security was in charge, not the staff,” Runyan said. “It was a blunt sword. That created all sorts of chaos.”
Neighborhoods around the facility, which is near the Columbia Canal, have asked for that kind of security screening to ease worries about criminals using the shelter and then wandering their streets during the day.
The plan is controversial. The Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless has criticized warrant checks as violations of rights.
“Requiring ... checks on specific populations to the exclusion of others violates civil liberties,” the group wrote in its evaluation of the plan. The consortium compared shelter checks to requiring screenings to enter a public building.
Christ Central is scrambling to make all the arrangements with the four weeks left before it opens.
“My only interest is the needs of the disenfranchised,” said the Rev. Jimmy Jones, who runs Christ Central. “It comes down to who is going to provide provisions on these cold and windy days.
“Our goal is not to grant them a bed for five months, but to give them the help they need for a path forward.”
The city will pay Christ Central up to $547,000 for this winter’s five months, during which the organization will be responsible for overnight housing, driving its homeless clients to and from the Sumter Street bus terminal, feeding them snacks twice a day and helping to get them back to a more stable lifestyle.
Jones presented City Council a different proposal this summer that would have included a center where homeless people could go to get medical, mental health, drug treatment or job assistance from a collection of service providers who would have offices in the center. City Council balked at the so-called “triage center.”
Christ Central is experienced in helping the homeless. It operates 89 programs at 38 locations across South Carolina – 10 of which are in metropolitan Columbia. The organization has a 14,000-person core of volunteers, many of whom are doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
Runyan said he’s frustrated that it has taken so long to put together a plan for the shelter this year. He has been working with service providers and advocates for the homeless to find a long-term solution to homeless people milling in the city center.
“Now you’ve got people struggling to get this in place,” he said, adding that the city needs to start now on the shelter plan for the following winter.
Jones’ plan for this year calls for a small army of volunteer groups to help at the facility. Volunteers would help serve evening snacks and coffee as well as play table games and other ways to make the shelter experience more pleasant, he said.
Jones estimates it will take groups of 10 to 15 volunteers every night for five months. He prefers teams that are used to working together, such as church mission groups, civic organizations or other community groups. Volunteers will receive orientation by Christ Central staff, and volunteer schedules will be distributed.
In addition to the volunteers, two social service case workers from the nearby Transitions center on Main Street would split their time between the shelter and Transitions, which also receives money from the city for the homeless. Case workers are professionals who evaluate the needs of homeless people and arrange appointments to get them help.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.