Church stops feeding homeless in downtown Columbia, igniting clash between service providers, city leaders, neighborhoods

cleblanc@thestate.comMarch 31, 2013 

Columbia's homeless lined up Tuesday for an evening meal that for three years has been served at 5 p.m. daily at Ebenezer Lutheran Church with help from the Salvation Army.


  • What’s at stake A furor has been triggered by the stopping of 5 p.m. feedings for Columbia’s homeless at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, where anyone could stop by to be fed an evening meal. The church and the Salvation Army had teamed up for three years to offer the meals, until the Salvation Army opted to end the contract Sunday, hoping the meals would be served at the city-owned winter shelter near the Congaree River. But the shelter closed for the year on Sunday.

    Going forward:

    •  Scores of homeless people will have to find another place to eat in the evenings.

    •  Will City Council find a solution? Council is split on ways to deal with the problem and feels its credibility with neighborhoods has been compromised by one councilman’s actions.

    •  Some neighborhood leaders are being accused of undermining a temporary solution or a long-term fix.

The longstanding debate of how to deal with downtown Columbia’s homeless population has flared again, this time triggered by a decision to stop feeding about 150 people evening meals at a downtown church.

Sunday was the last day after three years of being fed free suppers at 5 p.m. daily that homeless people could drop by Ebenezer Lutheran Church at 1301 Richland St. for a nighttime meal.

An agreement between the church and the Salvation Army expired Sunday just as arrangements to move the feeding program to another site fell apart in recent weeks – even after the church offered to extend the program until the end of the year.

A divided City Council – knowing the daily meal was to end – last week postponed discussions, then killed a plan to offer evening meals at the city’s winter shelter that, coincidentally, also closed for the season on Sunday.

Council members punted the debate to their April 9 meeting. They do not meet this week.

Meanwhile, council members are hearing a growing chorus of complaints from some city-center neighborhoods. Some residents don’t want the homeless to go unfed, but say they are angry they weren’t consulted about the idea of moving the evening meal to the city shelter, fearing that could mean the winter shelter might be opened year-round.

Some neighborhood leaders blame Councilman Cameron Runyan, who has spearheaded an effort to get the city out of the homeless services business and put them into the hands of the faith community. His critics say Runyan was devising a plan to use the shelter as a feeding site without discussing with neighborhoods how that decision would affect them.

Runyan said he was looking for a short-term solution to evening feedings, which he called “a vacuum in the heart of the city.”

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine wrote to city leaders last week saying she fears that feeling excluded feeds distrust of the city by the neighbors.

Runyan said he dropped his plan for feeding at the shelter because of the furor.

The standoff leaves scores of homeless people, many of whom are chronically homeless, to find another place to eat as the day ends.

“The concern of all of us is the uncertainty of what will happen,” said Ellen Cooper, who leads a group of six downtown neighborhood associations.

Everyone is hoping someone will find a solution.

The homeless could eat lunch at several other sites provided during the day and skip dinner, some providers suggest. But that’s not ideal.

Alternatives to Ebenezer

The loss of the meal has thrown a wrench into the fragile detente on the issue of homelessness in the city center.

Critics of evening feedings worry that serving the homeless deeper into the city center than at Ebenezer, which is only a few blocks from the winter shelter, near the Congaree River, could spread associated problems such as panhandling, trespassing and public defecation and urination into more neighborhoods.

“Those 150 people are going to go somewhere immediately after dinner,” Cooper said. “There are no restroom facilities, and guess where they’re going to go? That concerns me.”

But Cooper’s group also has lots of questions about the shelter staying open into the warmer months.

Runyan said he thought keeping the shelter open and serving a meal there temporarily would be a stop-gap way to address the problem.

Elizabeth Marks, president of the Robert Mills Historic Neighborhood where the church is located, said that having homeless people crossing several thoroughfares, especially Huger Street, to get to and from the shelter during afternoon rush hour for a meal would become a safety hazard.

At least two downtown neighborhood associations are to take up the homelessness issue at meetings this week.

The nearby Transitions, a once controversial center at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue where the meals that were served at the church were cooked, won’t agree to host evening meals for clients who have not reserved one of its 260 beds.

Transitions’ board feels bound by commitments it made two years ago to surrounding neighborhoods and city officials that it would not have an open-door evening meal, said director Craig Currey.

“We’re not going to launch into anything without getting the support of the (City) Council and the neighborhoods,” Currey said late last week. “We’re just kind of sitting here waiting. We don’t want to make enemies.”

The Salvation Army, which partners with Transitions to cook three meals a day at Transitions for the clientele there as well as whomever was eating at Ebenezer, asked the city to move Ebenezer’s evening meal to Transitions.

In a letter, the Salvation Army’s Maj. Roger Coulson suggested the city add $15,000 to the $250,000 it already spends for security at Transitions so that Transitions could accommodate the 150 people who have eaten at the church.

Currey said Transitions already feeds about 150 of its sleep-in residents breakfast and supper. An additional 150 walk-ins from around the city may eat lunch daily, including having access to its showers and day room, he said.

Transitions could accommodate 150 more for supper, he said, but not without the OK of council and neighborhood groups.

Lutheran church moving on

Leaders at Ebenezer wrote to concerned parties last week that after Coulson declined the church’s offer, its congregation council has made commitments to use its Parish Life Center, where the meals have been offered, for other events.

The church council also is proceeding with plans to replace the center’s air conditioner.

Efforts to reach Coulson last week were unsuccessful. But Salvation Army spokesman Seth Taylor said it is the “appropriate time” to end the group’s ties with Ebenezer. To extend the agreement until the end of 2013 is “outside of our ability to continue appropriate service at the same level.”

Taylor said homeless people still may eat lunch at Transitions or receive food boxes through the Salvation Army’s social service ministry.

“I certainly hope that no one goes hungry,” Taylor said.

Representatives from the Salvation Army plan to participate in City Council’s April 9 meeting.

Some who provide services to the homeless wonder if serving an open-door evening meal is needed or a good idea.

“We are seeing a lot of food discarded nightly,” Marks said of her neighborhood near the church.

An advisory committee that is working on broader homeless issues for City Council has not completed its findings on meals and other matters, said Marks, who is a member of the panel of providers and businesspeople.

The committee’s interim report shows only that its meals subcommittee is seeking to learn how many and which meals are being served by churches, nonprofit organizations and individuals in the central city. The panel wants to start by coordinating lunches so that the homeless do not have to crisscross the downtown area, getting from meal to meal.

Finlay Park is a regular feeding site, but the meals provided by various churches and individuals there are not coordinated, Marks and others said.

“Is there a better way than handing them a sandwich and just sending them on their way?” Marks said, adding that meals should be tied to the homeless enrolling in programs that might help them stabilize their lives.

“Good people coming together will find the right way to do it,” Marks said. “I think we’re close, but we’re not there yet.”

Runyan counters that the most hardened homeless people can’t or won’t stay in programs because of their mental health or addiction problems. Those people especially would be better served through faith-based programs.

Clash of solutions

A larger collision looms behind the feeding dispute.

“That’s where everybody is arguing – who needs to do what and what is the progressive path forward?” said Rebecca Haynes, president of the Earlewood Community Citizen’s Organization. “I’m new to this issue, but that is where there is a definite divide on the philosophy of how to solve the homelessness issue.”

Runyan said he favors weaning nonprofits off federal funding, which is shrinking, especially since the recently mandated cutbacks known as the “sequester.”

“If you put all your eggs in the federal basket,” he said, “your eggs are going to get broken.”

In addition, some of the housing programs for individuals are too expensive for the number of formerly homeless people they help, Runyan said.

Columbia spends about $1 million yearly on various services – and security officers – for the homeless, he said. Most of the cost is for running the winter shelter for five months a year.

“I’m interested in stopping the Band-Aid (approach) and moving toward a permanent solution,” he said. That solution would move homelessness services out of the city center and get city government out of that business, Runyan said.

Neighborhood groups for the most part have not tried to find long-term solutions, he said.

“My observation is they have been unwilling to engage in solution-oriented dialogue. There has been historically in the city a much greater tendency to tear down than to build up. Every time I try to engage them, they try to tear me apart like lions.

“That’s not going to solve anything and this (homelessness) problem is going to get worse.”

But, right now, there still will be no evening meal at Ebenezer, beginning today.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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