Columbia neighbors, advocates continue to stew over meals for the homeless

cleblanc@thestate.comApril 8, 2013 

  • If you go Columbia City Council is holding a special meeting this afternoon to dive back into one of the city’s most contentious debates: Where should the homeless go to get services and to stay off the streets of the city center? The issue erupted last week when an evening meal that had been served for three years at a downtown church stopped. Providers who offer services, neighborhood leaders and others are to lay out their ideas and concerns. It’s unclear whether City Council will make a decision.

    When: 3 p.m. (after council holds a closed-door session)

    Where: Eau Claire print building next door to the former Eau Claire city hall, 3907 Ensor Ave. at Monticello Road.

    Public input: Council has set aside time to hear from residents, organizations and other interested parties.

— The city center or the riverfront?

Those appear to be the choices for where to concentrate serving meals to Columbia’s homeless population as City Council grapples Tuesday with the issue that has a history of rankling neighbors, businesspeople and providers of services to the homeless.

Mayor Steve Benjamin would not say Monday which alternative he or council might select. But he told a gathering of Arsenal Hill neighbors that a tough decision is coming soon.

The Salvation Army, which provides meals to the homeless, has proposed a pilot program that would use Transitions, at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue, for an evening meal now that supper no longer is served at Ebenezer Lutheran Church after three years of providing food for any homeless person who arrived.

The pilot program would last through September and would require $15,000 more from City Council to defray the extra security costs, Maj. Roger Coulson of the Salvation Army said.

As an alternative, some council members have been discussing reopening the winter shelter along the banks of the Broad River as a short-term solution. Details have not been spelled out, which further worries some neighborhoods.

Neither council members nor any of the advocacy groups has come forward with a long-term solution, though all say they want one. Most activists are waiting to see what happens at today’s meeting.

The mayor said the council meeting is a forum for all parties to be heard. He would not say whether a vote is likely.

Benjamin and other city council members who attended the monthly Arsenal Hill neighborhood association Monday meeting at the Big Apple heard a common refrain: homeless people wandering the streets make some residents feel unsafe, they trash the neighborhood and the city needs a central location for the homeless – away from downtown and their neighborhood.

“Are we going to become a permanent-shelter neighborhood?” asked Katie Spann.

She and other neighbors said they won’t go to nearby Finlay Park because of concerns for their safety. Neighbors worry about homeless people with mental illness, about aggressive panhandling and about overnight camping sites.

Spann reminded three council members who attended the meeting that the city-owned winter shelter was supposed to be a temporary operation.

“That will not be the permanent site,” Benjamin told neighbors.

The neighborhood closest to the shelter is Arsenal Hill. But its western boundary stops at Huger Street, which separates the shelter from the neighborhood by a thoroughfare.

The shelter normally operates from November through March each year. Its closing this year coincided with the end of evening meals at the church.

“At some point, and I do not know where the point is, there’s going to have to be a profile-in-courage moment,” Benjamin said of an eventual vote by council. “Everyone thinks their way is the best way. It’s a difficult problem.”

Last month, council was to discuss reopening the shelter. But the matter was pulled from the agenda after a group of downtown neighborhoods complained that they were not consulted.

The board that oversees Transitions – itself a controversial center with 260 beds and a day program – has said it will not offer evening meals without the approval of council and surrounding neighborhoods.

The Salvation Army’s Coulson said in an interview Monday that almost half of the 150 people who every day had received an evening meal at Ebenezer are clients of Transitions. Coulson said he does not know where the rest went.

Oliver Gospel Mission, the city’s oldest center for the homeless, is providing evening meals to about 20 more people nightly since the church program ended, said Jeremy Laughead, its director of community ministry.

The mission is considering extending its evening meal hours for the first time in at least nine years to accommodate the influx, Laughead said. He’s not sure the 12 percent increase in the demand for evening meals is directly a result of the stoppage at Ebenezer.

David Parker, a University of South Carolina medical school researcher who has worked with Columbia’s homeless for several years, told the Arsenal Hill group the city had been making progress on helping the homeless in the city center.

“In Columbia we keep waffling,” Parker said. “We’ve made so much progress, but it appears we’re waffling again.”

Parker chairs an advisory committee appointed by the city manager to come up with proposals to improve the way Columbia deals with its homeless population. The committee has been meeting for months and has issued an interim report that has few details. Several committee members said it’s unclear when the final recommendations might be presented to council.

Eliminating evening meals at Ebenezer already has improved life in the Robert Mills Historic neighborhood where the church is located, Elizabeth Marks, president of the neighborhood association, told her Arsenal Hill neighbors.

“It’s peaceful. It’s quiet,” Marks said. “It’s almost like (for the first time) in a really long time we can let our breath out.”

Since the Salvation Army elected not to renew its arrangement with the church, the Robert Mills neighborhood is no longer littered with discarded food and public urination and defecation are memories, Marks said. Wandering groups of young men have disappeared.

Some advocates for the homeless remind those who are uneasy that they should reach out more to the homeless.

Elaine Cooper, who said she was a founder of Homeless Helping Homeless, told a gathering last week of six downtown neighborhood representatives that she lives within a block of a halfway house for women.

“We’ve never, never once had a problem with these ladies in the 30 years that I’ve lived there,” Cooper said. “These are our fellow neighbors. They’re human beings.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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