Columbia’s plan to address homelessness tangled in disagreements

cleblanc@thestate.cAugust 19, 2013 

Homeless men wait briefly outside Columbia's winter shelter before they are processed.

ERIC CAMPOS

— Disagreements emerged Monday between key Columbia staffers and the councilman who is the primary author of a plan to convert the city’s winter shelter into a round-the-clock operation to divert homeless people from the city center.

Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago said his department cannot transport homeless adults to the riverfront shelter to get services nor can police tell them they would be charged with a nuisance offense should they refuse.

City manager Teresa Wilson said that neither she, Santiago nor City Council has agreed to transfer any police officers to enforce laws that prohibit loitering, trespassing or other public nuisance offenses in the 36-block Main Street financial and retail district.

Councilman Cameron Runyan, who has pushed a goal of getting homeless people out of the city’s financial district so that a fledgling economic boom can continue, contradicted the chief and the manager.

“It was in the plan that council adopted the other night,” Runyan said of Wilson’s statement about assigning officers to enforce nuisance laws. “So the first thing she needs to do is read the plan.

“Santiago is the one who said in the (Aug. 5 City Hall) meeting that they could transport people,” the councilman said. “It was in a meeting with about 15 people – three of whom are elected officials – in which he said the Police Department regularly transports citizens from point A to point B, including the shelter and particularly the women’s shelter.”

Council unanimously voted at about 2 a.m. on Aug. 13 to proceed with converting the winter shelter from a nighttime operation during cold months into a 24/7 operation starting in mid September. The vote occurred during a 13-hour series of meetings that included a contentious, four-hour public hearing and debate over a vote on putting a strong mayor form of government on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Official minutes of that meeting had not been released by the city at close of business Monday.

Any disagreement about precisely what council adopted is likely to be settled at the next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 3.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” Santiago said. “I’ve got to have the legal right (to question or take anyone into custody). We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.

“I think there are some misconceptions out there that police are going to go out there and scoop up the homeless. We want to make sure we’re doing things the legal, proper way.”

He said police policy prohibits not filing a charge for volunteering to accept services. “That’s basically cutting a deal. It’s basically coercion.”

Runyan disputes that his plan is a crackdown. He emphasizes that the intention is to extend a helping hand to the homeless. But if they continue to break the law they would be arrested. “And when you get out of jail, you’re going to the shelter unless you have provisions to have someone get you from Alvin S. Glenn (the county jail).”

Wilson said there is no commitment to redirect police.

“I’m not saying we’re doing that,” she said of Runyan’s plan to divert nine officers to the city center and one to stand patrol at an access road to the shelter. “We’re not budgeted to do that.”

Wilson and Santiago are working on the financial and other implications of switching the shelter’s mission into a centralized location for meals, transportation and as a drop-off site for released inmates.

Santiago said he will submit his suggested options to Wilson by the end of the week.

She said she will present her recommendations, including changing the contract with Christ Central Ministries to run a 24/7 shelter, at council’s meeting next month.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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