Tempers are flaring as groups prepare to contest Columbia’s plan to remove homeless people from the city center, arguing it violates their constitutional rights.
Civil libertarians say the plan that City Council adopted unanimously last week violates their protections of equal treatment under the law and their freedom of assembly.
“There’s going to be a fistfight,” said attorney Tom Turnipseed, who for more than a decade has been involved in providing Sunday meals at Finlay Park through the Food Not Bombs program.
He said Friday a federal lawsuit will be filed and he expects that the city’s Appleseed Legal Justice Center and the state chapter of the ACLU will at least help if not join the suit.
“I guarantee it’s going to be more than Food Not Bombs,” said Turnipseed, an attorney, a former state senator and a longtime political activist.
Leaders for the Appleseed organization in Columbia and the American Civil Liberties Union stopped short of saying last week they will sue. But leaders of both organizations agree the policy is treading on constitutional protections.
Columbians have debated the “homeless issue” for nearly two decades in a city where on some days the homeless rival the number of shoppers, diners and pedestrians on key downtown streets. But City Council’s sweeping plan has brought the issue to a heated pitch.
Council – which includes three attorneys – agreed to Councilman Cameron Runyan’s proposal to turn the city’s riverfront winter shelter into a 24/7 center where homeless adults could not only sleep, but be provided meals and consult with caseworkers and others who would direct them to medical, mental health, substance abuse and job services.
The expanded center is set to open by Sept. 15 for about six months. It would be run by a faith-based organization that would provide transportation to discourage the homeless from meandering through downtown neighborhoods and businesses.
Perhaps the most controversial feature of the plan involves increasing police patrols in a 36-block business district and at the riverfront shelter to direct the homeless there for help. If they refuse, they could be arrested under a range of public nuisance laws that include loitering, public intoxication, public urination, aggressive panhandling or trespassing.
“I was concerned that it is criminalizing homelessness,” said Sue Berkowitz of the Appleseed center. “People could be targeted and made a suspect class because they’re walking down the street.”
Susan Dunn, the legal director for the state’s Charleston-based ACLU chapter, shares the same concerns.
“Police are not supposed to coerce people into behavior,” Dunn said. “The whole nexus of the relationship between law enforcement and the citizen is that ... they have to have reasonable suspicion of a crime.
“The underlying design is that they want the homeless not to be visible in downtown Columbia,” Dunn said. “You can shuttle them somewhere or you can go to jail. That’s, in fact, an abuse of power.”
Runyan argues that his proposal is an act of concern for the homeless with a tough-love approach.
“This is not about new laws. The homeless can’t be exempt from laws the rest of us live by,” Runyan said. “We’re not allowed to be drunk in public. We’re not allowed to urinate in public or camp in public places.
“This is about help and hope for people who are on the streets of this city.”
Asked if he discussed the legality of his plan with the city attorney’s office, Runyan said, “Why would I? The only time you would engage the city attorney’s office is when you’re going to change anything. We’re not changing anything.”
However, Runyan said the city attorney’s office knew for months about his proposal and did not raise concerns.
At least one Columbia lawyer agrees with the policy.
“I’ll debate anybody about the constitutional issue as to whether my rights are equal to the rights of the homeless,’’ said attorney Eric Bland, whose law office is at the corner of Bull and Calhoun streets. “I don’t agree there’s a constitutional crisis here.
“I work at Ground Zero of the homelessness problem,” Bland said. “The homeless have gotten to the point where they enter my property. They come inside and panhandle or ask to use the bathroom. When they’re told no, they get upset. I’ve had homeless key the cars of people in my parking lot. They sleep on my porch. They go through the trash.
“My employees feel unsafe. Clients feel unsafe. I have to carry a gun,” he said.
Bland said drug transactions take place near his law office. Friday morning, a woman and man he believes are homeless got into a profanity-laced argument just outside the firm, he said.
“The lawyers that are screaming aren’t the ones at Ground Zero of this,” Bland said. “They’re not the ones paying the taxes.”
He and a fellow businessman had been contemplating suing the city.
“It’s the city’s obligation to provide for the health and welfare of its citizens,” Bland said. The homeless “don’t have the right to stop people from the use and enjoyment of their property.”
Homeless people who enjoy the shelter, meals and other programs available to them through city government or a myriad of private providers must accept that “you’ve got to stay inside the system,” Bland said.
Legal, practical problems
Berkowitz and Dunn say that deciding who’s homeless might become a challenge.
“How do we identify who is homeless and who is not?” asks Berkowitz of Columbia.
Dunn, of the ACLU, goes further. “The police are being invited to profile by how somebody looks,” she said. “If you appear to be a homeless person, you have no right to be in an area because you’re interfering with business?
“That sidewalk belongs to someone who does not look particularly great just as much as it does to the rest of us,” Dunn said.
She also wonders how the city will deal with the children of homeless people who are arrested. “It’s not addressing the complexity of the problem. A shelter can get them a place to go. But it can’t get them a home.”
Dunn questions Runyan’s argument that the city is merely enforcing its laws.
She asked Columbians to think of it in another way: Imagine the same city laws being trained at teenagers.
“Yes, these laws are in place,” Dunn said. “But they’re going to use them against this particular community.
“What (the homeless) are really being arrested for is not going to the shelter.”
Dunn also wonders how the city can keep private groups, including many churches, from serving meals wherever and whenever they chose.
“The City Council doesn’t have the authority to decide who is going to be generous,” she said.
Turnipseed told council members the night they adopted the plan that Food Not Guns would “go to war” if it is told it can no longer use Finlay Park, a public facility.
Dunn said the ACLU will have to wait to see if they city applies the same crackdown techniques to Five Points revelers, for example. To have legal standing to file a lawsuit, a homeless person or one of the organizations that provides services, would have to ask the ACLU to sue on their behalf.
The small Appleseed organization has turned to a Washington law firm for a legal analysis before deciding whether it will sue, Berkowitz said.
Is message being lost?
Runyan, who has been working on the homelessness issue almost since his term in office began last year, said he does not understand the pushback.
“We don’t think there is any (constitutional) violation,” he said.
“This is not about hurting people. It’s about helping them,” he said. “But we’re not going to allow them to live on our streets anymore.”
The inability of city government or private providers to solve the persistent presence of homeless people in the heart of Columbia has created an atmosphere that attracts that population but leaves them to their own devices most of the day and night, many who work with the homeless said.
The problem is growing worse, though no hard numbers are available on the homeless population inside the city limits, Runyan and neighborhood leaders said.
Runyan laments that the public conversation “has become all about the punitive part of it.”
He contends that most homeless people will accept the use of the expanded shelter.
“There are people who are going to resist it,” Runyan said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re going to have to give them some tough love.”
He gets riled at the objections coming from civil liberty organizations like Appleseed and the ACLU.
“Is the ACLU going to crawl up Greenville’s and Charleston’s backs?” Runyan asks.
“What they’re arguing for, is to leave the homeless on the streets of this city without hope or help.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.