Columbia’s plan for homeless defended, protested

Supporters say intent is to help homeless; opponents plan ‘loitering-in’ demonstration

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 26, 2013 

  • Viewpoints Supporters, critics argued their positions Monday on Columbia’s plan for the homeless:

    Supporters: City seeks to protect progress, public

    Critics: Homeless people also have rights

Supporters of Columbia’s impending crackdown on the homeless rallied Monday, saying the plan is legal and is being distorted by its critics.

“We want to make sure there is a balanced narrative on this,” said attorney Eric Bland, who held a news conference at his law firm’s Calhoun Street office, located in what Bland calls “ground zero” of a city center that many characterize as overrun with homeless people.

Protesters advocating for the homeless showed up at Bland’s office, confronted him and were directed to a public sidewalk by a Columbia police officer requested by Councilman Cameron Runyan, the prime author of the controversial plan.

The already intense public debate about the plan is to get even more high profile Tuesday, as homeless advocates plan a “loitering-in” demonstration along Main Street.

A unanimous City Council adopted a plan Aug. 13 aimed at getting homeless adults out of the 36-block area around Main Street by converting the city’s winter shelter into a round-the-clock center for about six months, where the homeless could have a central location to go for meals, shelter and to be transported to appointments for job training, medical services or substance abuse treatment.

But some on council are now disputing which elements of Runyan’s plan were adopted in a vote that occurred about 2 a.m. during a marathon meeting.

Some 20 supporters of the plan attended Monday’s news conference, including representatives of businesses and residents who said a growing homeless population is scaring neighbors and office workers and is hurting commerce in a city center poised to make major gains.

“We need to support this,” Bland said. “There’s been 20 years of rhetoric ... and we’re not making any progress.

“The homeless have a constitutional right to be on the street,” Bland said. “But they don’t have a constitutional right to live on the street. Our rights have been violated,” he said of people who live and work in the area. “What the city’s doing is balancing our rights.”

Critics have called the plan illegal, saying it seeks to criminalize a group of people and subject them to being arrested when they violate city nuisance laws, especially if they refuse to go to the expanded, riverfront shelter. Some have said they will sue the city.

“Absolutely. It will be upheld,” said attorney Dick Harpootlian, who has challenged a range of state government decisions and whose office is in the affected area. None of the handful of lawyers at the news conference disputed Harpootlian’s remark.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, himself an attorney and a supporter of the plan, said skepticism and “patently false” assertions about the plan are drowning out its goal – that it seeks to help the homeless.

“What is being lost is that we’re creating a place where people can actually have a place to sleep ... a place to eat ... a place with air conditioning,” Benjamin said.

The tensions the plan for the homeless has raised were apparent when Columbia attorney and political activist Tom Turnipseed showed up in Bland’s office accompanied by several advocates for the homeless. They sported the letter “H” imprinted over burlap badges.

“Your intentions are good but they’re misguided,” Bland told Turnipseed.

Bland repeatedly asked the protesters to leave. “Anyone who’s not in support (of the city plan), leave. This is private property.”

Turnipseed and others lingered, including one woman who peppered Bland with questions while recording his responses on a smartphone.

Runyan said he asked last week and again Monday that an officer be dispatched to the news conference. The councilman said he has received threatening emails and been called a Nazi.

Turnipseed and his wife, Judy, have long been active in serving meals to homeless people. They are helping to galvanize opponents.

“We’re having a loitering-in,” Judy Turnipseed said of Tuesday’s demonstration that the couple expects to attract more than 100 supporters. “That’s what we’re calling it.”

The 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. event has been driven largely by social media. “I’ve got 3,000 (Facebook) friends just so I can agitate,” Tom Turnipseed said, laughing.

Backers are to meet at Turnipseed’s law office and walk to Main Street, where they plan to wear “H” badges and walk between Hampton and Blanding streets. “We’re going to be peaceful. Very, very peaceful,” Tom Turnipseed said.

That route takes them past the Mast General store, whose top executive have voiced concerns to City Council that the homeless people are scaring store customers and employees, and said the problem has worsened to the point that it’s “virtually impossible for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model.” Later, Mast General president Fred Martin clarified that the store is not leaving downtown.

“It’s not just (about) Mast General,” Tom Turnipseed said of Tuesday’s demonstration.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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