Full-time city homeless shelter to open by Sept. 15

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 14, 2013 

The homeless stand in line waiting for dinner at Ebenezer Lutheran church in Columbia one recent evening.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— Within a month, Columbia’s homeless will be diverted to the city’s expanded, around-the-clock shelter to receive food and help as part of the city’s crackdown on their presence downtown.

Council voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to endorse a plan driven by complaints from businesses and residents that homeless adults increasingly are upsetting homeowners, office workers, shoppers and tourists. That’s bad for commerce as well as neighborhood tranquility, they said.

The shelter is to be open no later than Sept. 15 and will close March 30, 2014, under Councilman Cameron Runyan’s proposal that also calls for assigning nine police officers to patrol the 36-block Main Street business district and for stationing an officer near the riverfront shelter.

Those who do not accept services at the 240-bed shelter face being jailed on public nuisance charges such as loitering, public urination and other offenses, Runyan said. That’s the tough love part of his brash plan.

The shelter also would become a central location for serving meals and for transporting homeless people to services they need such as job placement, doctor appointments or treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems. People released from the county jail or state prisons also might be dropped at the shelter instead of in the city center.

The shelter is a stop-gap effort toward a longer-term solution. Leaders will be looking for a site outside of downtown to house those services.

Runyan’s plan drew criticism and widespread attention from the moment he floated it publicly last week.

Civil libertarians, private groups that provide meals in largely uncoordinated schedules and some neighborhood leaders raised objections.

“You try to do away with that, and we’re going to go to war,” said Tom Turnipseed, who is a founder of the Columbia chapter of Food Not Bombs. That group serves hot meals every Sunday to 140 people at Finlay Park, he said.

“If they’re going to try to keep us out of that public park, we have news for them,” Turnipseed said.

Elizabeth Marks of the Robert Mills Historic District said her neighborhood is littered with discarded food from the 30-or-so organizations that serve meals. Some neighbors find excrement in their yards and on their porches and a few others have discovered homeless people have broken into vacant buildings and are camping there.

Recently, downtown businesses launched a letter-writing campaign to council, lobbying for relief for their employees and customers.

Council instructed city manager Teresa Wilson to update last year’s $547,000 shelter contract with Christ Central Ministries to reflect the changes in operation for what has been a nighttime-only facility that opens Nov. 1 and provides shelter through March 30.

Christ Central leader Pastor Jimmy Jones has said his organization is willing to absorb the $1.2 million price tag that providing meals, transportation and other expanded services will cost during the upcoming season. City Council has budgeted $500,000 in public money for the 2013-2014 season.

Wilson also is to evaluate the added cost of electrical and other bills of a 24/7 operation as well as overtime for the police officers. She said the shelter may need a second power line to provide heating and cooling and for the commercial-grade mobile kitchen to cook meals.

Council did not decide Wednesday how it would pay for the extra cost. Wilson is to report her findings and present a new contract at council’s next meeting on Sept. 3.

Runyan’s plan – which drew attention from the New York Times and Al Jazeera America’s nightly news magazine – won all seven votes on council at about 2 a.m., near the end of a long, busy, contentious meeting.

Council continued to meet at the Eau Claire print building until 3:30 a.m., said staffers, including veterans who could not recall a session that lasted that deep into the night.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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