Columbia's plan for homeless draws protesters to Main Street

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 27, 2013 

— It was just a snapshot during Tuesday’s two-hour demonstration on behalf of the homeless, but the scene captured the tensions between city center businesses and the homeless population.

A businesswoman dressed in a glittery shirt, mini-skirt, wedge heels and bold jewelry engaged a group of disheveled homeless people and their advocates during a peaceful midday protest march along Main Street.

They surrounded her in what began as a discussion about safety, personal rights and the city’s plan to crack down on homeless adults in the heart of Columbia. Soon talk degenerated into a confrontation.

The woman, who would identify herself only as a downtown small-business owner, wheeled around and marched away, telling her small audience, “You’re hearing but you’re not listening. You refuse to listen.”

Moments later she told reporters that homeless people are hurting her business and that one tried to panhandle from her 13-year-old daughter as the girl walked to a dance class.

“I don’t want to put them on a bus and ship them somewhere,” the agitated woman said. “But there has to be some sort of medium.”

The 50 or so marchers who traipsed a two-block circle of the downtown corridor included homeless men along with advocates young and older. Organizers called the demonstration a “loitering-in.” Many demonstrators sported an “H” on a burlap patch.

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“Who tells somebody, ‘You can’t be an American,’’’ said William Payton, a 42-year-old who said he has been homeless here several months. “(That) they’re going to cut you out of a city.”

Payton said he was laid off after four years from a fence company that went out of business and was divorced. “I have no family here,” he said, explaining that he has slept at Oliver Gospel Mission’s shelter, the city’s shelter and on the streets.

“You have to keep bouncing from place to place so they don’t see you,” Payton said of police. “You’ve got to be invisible.”

That is what critics say is the intent of the city’s plan to enforce nuisance laws and to offer the winter shelter as a 24/7 operation for six months while leaders work on a long-term solution to what they say is an increasingly disruptive, even threatening homeless population.

Kevin Gray, a longtime local social and political activist, walked with the demonstrators. Gray called the city’s plan outrageous and “an attack on some of the most vulnerable people in society.”

Gray’s objection to businesspeople and residents who say the homeless are denying them the right to enjoy their property and to prosper, is, “Property owners have property rights on the other side of their doors.”

Kevin Oliver, a freelance writer who used social media to help organize the demonstration, said he opposes major provisions of the plan. Any solution has to be done in “a humane manner,” Oliver said. He’s particularly worried about seeking to gather homeless adults at the around-the-clock center and the practical problems of creating a central location for meals.

Resident Barry McElveen, 68, decided he would wear his message to the homeless: “We live here. We shop here. We count, too,” his sandwich-board sign stated.

“I’m just tired of being harassed,” McElveen said as he followed the demonstrators. “They come staggering up with their beer or wine in a little brown bag.”

He said he has never been threatened, but the panhandling has grown more aggressive. If McElveen declines to help, he said homeless people say: ‘Have a nice life on me. I’m a veteran.’ ”

McElveen said he dismisses their retort because he, too, is a veteran.

“I pay city taxes. I shop down here. What do they pay?” asked McElveen, who had his small, Maltese dog, Max, on a leash.

Asked whether his remarks might sound heartless to the homeless, McElveen snapped back. “I couldn’t care less what they think.”

Some homeless men who marched Tuesday struggle with mental illness or suffered severe abuse, some of the advocates who work with them said.

And some displayed behavior that attracts criticism.

Several carried smartphones. And a few doused themselves with water from the Keenan Fountain at the Columbia Museum of Art’s Boyd Plaza. Some young men peeled off their shirts, slung book bags onto their backs and strolled shoulder to shoulder northward on the sidewalk. One man, whom advocates said has a background of mental illness and abuse, did profanity-laced interviews with journalists.

Sacrament served in Finlay Park

A half-dozen homeless men accepted communion Tuesday at Finlay Park as part of a local church’s newest outreach to Columbia’s needy.

The men, who had been lying under shade trees or hanging out at the downtown park, heard a sermon from Trenholm Road United Methodist’s new senior pastor, the Rev. Mike Smith.

“The overarching theme of the Bible is about bringing us home,” preached the pastor, dressed in a long white alb and colorful stole. “My brothers and sisters, you are all invited to this table.”

About 60 people, from Trenholm Road Methodist and other churches, attended.

Congregants had erected a folding table near the park’s covered stage and placed on it seven loaves of bread, pitchers of grape juice, a chalice and wine glasses for sipping.

Four young acoustic guitarists from Trenholm Road’s youth ministry led the singing of hymns.

Church members spent Tuesday inviting the homeless to attend. Some in the park who were approached walked away.

Smith said on Sunday he challenged his congregation of about 2,000 to more actively engage the city’s poor.

He was pleased with the turnout at the park that has become a haven for the homeless.

“If no homeless folks show up tonight, it will not mean we will stop,” Smith said before the 6:30 p.m. service began.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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