COLUMBIA, SC —
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Homelessness soon could get you arrested in downtown Columbia under a tough-love plan from a city councilman thats gaining steam.
Vagrancy laws would be enforced. The city would post more police officers on key downtown streets to warn against loitering, public urination and other nuisance violations. And at least one police officer would be posted at a key access road to the citys riverfront winter shelter to make sure the homeless do not meander toward the city center.
Where would the homeless go? Under Councilman Cameron Runyans plan, the citys shelter would stay open 24 hours a day for seven months as a full-service center while leaders work to build an out-of-town facility to help divert the homeless away from downtown.
Service providers for the homeless, neighborhood groups and some on City Council are skeptical about a plan they say they know little about.
But businesses are lining up in deliberate fashion behind Runyans long-term plan to get homeless adults out of the city center. That plan is called Columbia Cares.
Business leaders are demanding a solution to years of complaints that a large homeless population in the heart of Columbia makes office workers and visitors feel unsafe and threatens to squash a fledgling economic boom around Main Street.
Runyans brash, temporary plan for the shelter has led to a resurgence of old political battle lines that the long-standing homelessness issue raises in Columbia.
City Council will address his plan on Tuesday. It will run up against a separate plan from a city-appointed committee of service providers at the same council meeting.
Each group blames the other for not sharing its ideas or allowing enough public input.
We have an emergency because businesses are screaming for relief, Runyan said last week. Weve got to have consensus around something.
Elizabeth Marks, a member of the city-appointed citizens panel, agrees with Runyan on a key point. While we bicker, the problem gets worse.
Richland County Council, in the meantime, has imposed a moratorium that would block a permanent center for homeless people outside the city limits. During the 90-day halt to such a facility, county staffers are drafting a new zoning special-exception law to regulate such centers, said County Councilman Bill Malinowski, its sponsor.
Around-the- clock shelter
Runyans latest proposal would radically change the 240-bed shelter the city opens nightly for five months during cold months.
The Butler-building shelter for adults would operate for two months longer than usual, would become the sole place for meals for the homeless and would be the centralized location where released jail detainees and prison inmates would be returned to the community.
If council agrees on Tuesday, the shelter would open Sept. 1, instead of Nov. 1, and would close as usual on March 30. A council-appointed citizens group would meet every other week to monitor the operation and would become a mouthpiece for feedback from neighbors and businesses.
An around-the-clock shelter would cost $1.2 million more than the $500,000 City Council has approved for its operation this fall as an overnight center, Runyan said. Christ Central Ministries, which ran the shelter the immediate-past season, has agreed to absorb the $1.2 million for the upcoming season, said Christ Central leader, pastor Jimmy Jones.
While the shelter is open, stakeholders would come together to find a long-term solution that would bar the shelter from becoming a permanent site and would recommend a location away from the business district, Runyan said.
He does not yet have an answer for how the city would pay for the 10 police officers that would be dispatched to patrol the shelter for walk-aways as well as the 36-square-block Main Street financial district. Their job would be to get any meandering homeless adults to the shelter for assistance or to jail if they refuse help.
This is to be a controlled environment, Runyan said of a solution to what he calls an emergency.
Jones said that using the vast resources of Christ Central is stopgap measure. This cant be a fix-all, solve-all. I will come to the table. I will help ... to try to move homeless off the street ... and help develop a path forward.
Former councilman Daniel Rickenmann, who worked on the homelessness issue during his two-terms on council, is skeptical that Christ Central can take such a financial hit.
Id like somebody to show me how theyre going to do that, said Rickenmann, who plans to attend Tuesdays council meeting.
Wheres the money?
When a reporter asked Runyan if hes calculated the collateral cost to taxpayers of his plan, he replied, Whats the collateral cost of Mast General leaving downtown?
Runyan is referring to a July 11 letter to City Council from Mast Generals president, Fred Martin. Martin wrote that employees and customers no longer feel safe because of the homeless population.
He described the situation as one that is virtually impossible for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model.
On Friday, Martin clarified remarks that many read as an omen that the store, often credited as being a turning point in the revitalization of the city center, might abandon its store at Main and Taylor streets.
We have no plans to move, Martin told The State newspaper. Weve invested a ton of money in downtown Columbia. To be very clear, were in it for the long range.
He wrote the letter to endorse the goals of Runyans longer-term Columbia Cares plan, which set six goals for dealing with the homelessness issue.
Asked about the proposal for the winter shelter, Martin did not address it directly.
Just as long as were all working in the right direction ... Mast is happy, the executive said. Just dont go backward.
The cost of Runyans shelter plan is important to winning the support of Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who has been critical of what she and others consider to be Runyans unwillingness to share details of either of his plans.
He said (at a council meeting) ... that anything he would propose would not affect the (current city) budget, Devine said. Id like it to be budget neutral. Any additional money would have to come from somewhere else.
She said the police department budget would be stretched, and putting homeless people in jail if they violate nuisance laws rather than use the shelter can grow expensive.
The city spent just more than $1 million on homelessness during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to figures from Columbias chief financial officer. The lions share was the $568,000 used to run the shelter from November 2012 through March 2013.
Overall, Devine said Runyans plan does not give her heartburn. At first blush, I cant say that Im opposed to any of that.
She said Runyan was to supply her a written copy of the shelter plan on Friday. She would study it over the weekend in advance of a vote Tuesday.
But the political reality is that council will adopt it, Devine said. I think Cameron already has his four votes.
Marks, who in addition to be being a member of councils citizens panel, also is the leader of the Robert Mills Historic District neighborhood organization.
She said the citizens committee that then-city manager Steve Gantt appointed last year is going to submit its final report Tuesday to council.
Marks declined to release it to the newspaper on Friday, saying she wants council to have it first.
But Marks characterized the plan as different in that weve gone out and done a lot of research.
Elements of the report she was willing to discuss focus on dealing with public health challenges of uneaten food strewn in yards and businesses, and homeless people who urinate and defecate in public places.
The committee is going to suggest public restrooms be built in the city center, Marks said without elaborating.
The panel also will recommend that some of the money churches and other groups spend on preparing food be diverted to helping the homeless with rental assistance or transportation vouchers.
That money, Marks said of meals served without coordination among at least 32 providers, is being just plain wasted.
Asked if the citizens committee will oppose Runyans shelter plan, she said, Were completely neutral on it because we just dont have enough information. Yet she said that keeping it open 24/7 is the opposite of what they (council) told us when the winter shelter opened.
Marks said she and her neighbors have questions about how shelter clients will be transported. She also called Runyans plan a theory until council votes on it.
What our committee is not going to do, Marks added, is deliver something confrontational.
Neighbors lukewarm so far
A sampling of neighborhood leaders reached by The State shows that few know details of the shelter proposal. Many had bristled about rumors that Runyan was going to suggest the shelter become a 24/7 year-round operation.
Bob Wynn, head of the Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association, was invited to attend a City Hall meeting last Monday with key city leaders and Columbia government staffers. The Arsenal Hill neighborhood abuts the property near the Broad River where the shelter is located.
My personal feeling as a homeowner here in the middle of it all, is that it has the potential to reduce the stress that we all feel, Wynn said. Rather than us doing nothing as we have for months and years, it is a beginning point.
He said that his conversations with residents from nearby neighborhoods lead him to conclude that their reactions will be very lukewarm to cold.
Some might see the shelter proposal as a backdoor means of winning favor for Runyans longer-term plan put together after forums earlier this year with neighbors and other stakeholders.
This is an attempt to get Columbia Cares accepted in a covert fashion, Wynn said.
Runyans Columbia Cares plan sets out six goals for getting the city out of the homelessness business and allowing private providers to coordinate their expertise and deal better with the vexing problem of homeless people in downtown.
The influential Congaree Vista Guild, which represents many businesses in the thriving Vista retail and entertainment corridor, has yet to take a public position on the shelter plan.
Were either going to support one or none, Guild director Sarah Lewis said of Runyans or the citizens committee plans, and none is an option that were considering.
Jim Morris, head of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said he had not heard of Runyans shelter plan. After a reporter described the key elements, Morris said, My initial reaction is that this is a proposal that deserves to be vetted and taken seriously. Its an interesting idea, a very interesting idea.
Then Morris added what all the stakeholders can agree upon: Nobodys happy with the present situation.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.