Bolton: People are watching how Columbia treats the least among us

Associate EditorAugust 30, 2013 

— COLUMBIA City Council’s plan to remove homeless people from downtown by offering services elsewhere is an attempt to preserve a resurging city center, promote a more business-friendly atmosphere and make Main Street attractive to more visitors and investors.

But city leaders are finding out that how they treat the homeless will garner as much, if not more, attention as efforts to spur commerce.

Although the plan includes giving homeless people help to turn their lives around, the thought of the least of these being forced off the streets to a place designated by government has caused considerable consternation among providers and others locally. More importantly, it has been launched into the national media spotlight — even The New York Times came to town to do a story — in a way that doesn’t paint the best picture of our capital city.

Do a quick web search, and you’ll see what I mean:

“South Carolina City Takes Steps to Evict Homeless From Downtown,” the headline reads on The Times’ web site.

“Columbia, South Carolina, bans homeless people from its downtown,” says a globalpost.com headline.

Under its headline, “Kicking Out the Homeless in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina,” timesnewsfeed.com notes that “The controversial plan, approved by the city council, would exile those who sleep outdoors in the city center to a shelter on the outskirts of town.”

“Poverty Prison: Columbia SC Demands Homeless People Go Away or Go To Jail, Police Not So Sure,” says commondreams.org.

“South Carolina city makes being homeless illegal,” says a foxnews.com headline.

“Columbia, SC, to exile its homeless,” says a headline on msnmoney.com, followed by, “The city plans to forcibly segregate them in the same year it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement.”

In his piece on msnmoney.com, Jason Note writes: “What’s the quickest, easiest — if least effective — way to deal with your downtown’s unsightly problem of homelessness? Making it somebody else’s problem.

“Because the city government in Columbia, S.C., apparently cribs its planning for homeless outreach from old episodes of ‘South Park,’ it has decided to get its big push broom out of the garage and just sweep the homeless out of the city center.”

To be clear, Columbia hasn’t decided to force people into shelters or to arrest them for being homeless. At least not yet.

Recently City Council unanimously approved Cameron Runyan’s proposal to remove the homeless from the core business district. The plan is for the city to allow its winter shelter to stay open 24 hours a day for about six months as a full-service center while business leaders work to establish a facility into which they can move the homeless and services out of downtown, perhaps to a rural setting. The winter shelter, which is expected to open by Sept. 15, would be run by a faith-based organization.

Mr. Runyan’s plan calls for putting more police officers downtown to strictly enforce vagrancy laws and warn against loitering, public urination, panhandling and other nuisance violations. Homeless people who refuse to go to the riverfront shelter for help could be arrested.

But the city hasn’t formalized any heavy-handed attempts that would “criminalize” homelessness in an effort to export people from downtown.

Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago has said his department can’t transport homeless adults to the riverfront shelter to get services or threaten to charge them with a nuisance offense should they refuse. City manager Teresa Wilson said there has been no agreement to transfer any police officers to enforce laws prohibiting loitering, trespassing or other public nuisance offenses in the Main Street financial and retail district.

We might get some clarity on what the city intends to do at Tuesday’s council meeting, when the issue is expected to be discussed.

The homeless issue is a difficult one. You can’t ignore complaints from business owners about panhandling, loitering and other activities that could cause patrons to stop shopping, eating in and doing business with their establishments. You can’t blame nearby residents for complaining about people sleeping on their porches or defecating in their yards.

At the same time, you can’t act as if all homeless people are perpetrators when so many are victims. You can’t act as if all homeless people are good-for-nothing loafers when a number of them have jobs. And you can’t act as if removing them from downtown makes the problem go away forever.

The Oliver Gospel Mission is still downtown, and so is the Transitions center. And, believe you me, many homeless people — just like many of the rest of us — are going to be drawn to a vibrant and growing downtown, where things are happening and people are gathering.

I get that city officials are trying to respond definitively and swiftly to business people’s concerns about homelessness endangering commerce. They’re also trying to improve the lives of the homeless.

But the city must do a better job of articulating its intent toward the homeless. If the overwhelming focus is on improving the environment for businesses by moving the homeless out of the city center, then people are naturally going to see it as a haves vs. have-nots scenario.

While Mr. Runyan admits that there is a bit of tough love in his proposal, I’m sure he would suggest that people are overreacting to what they see as punitive measures while not paying more attention to the ultimate plan of providing homeless people the help they need — medical, mental health, substance abuse and job services — to get back on their feet and become productive citizens. He just believes that, long term, that needs to happen on a large parcel outside of town.

Frankly, I think it’s best to serve the homeless where they are and where I think they forever will be drawn — downtown. That said, if the city, providers and business and community leaders can’t come up with a downtown plan that works but can come up with a way of serving them outside of town — and it remains to be seen if this can actually be done — then maybe it’s worth trying.

Whatever Columbia does, it must remember that how it addresses homelessness is very important to how people will perceive the city.

While many will visit or move their families or businesses to Columbia based on how we develop downtown, there also will be those who will make their decision based on how we treat the least among us.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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