Homelessness in Columbia

Is relocating homeless solution?

Downtown workers, residents deal with homeless hangouts as city debates new plan for services

nophillips@thestate.comSeptember 1, 2013 

  • If you go

    What: Columbia City Council meeting

    When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

    Where: Eau Claire Print Building, 3907 Ensor Ave.

    Note: No hearing is scheduled on this topic, but a public comment period is listed at the end of a lengthy agenda.

Each day, Donna Ackmann tends to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church’s business as 22 surveillance cameras keep watch over the entrances and well-used areas of church property that covers an entire city block.

Inside, Ackmann, the office administrator, monitors a surveillance video screen, watching who is coming and going. She checks the monitors before leaving one building and walking to another and before dashing to her car at the end of a work day.

“That has been really, really helpful to me, along with my panic button,” she said of the surveillance system and the button she wears on a lanyard around her neck.

Holy Trinity sits at the intersection of Main and Calhoun streets. Two of the three other corners are occupied by two of the city’s largest organizations that serve the homeless.

As a result, homeless people constantly come and go, and many hang out on the sidewalks, especially on a wall at Christ Central Ministries’ Hope Plaza. They talk. They yell. Police are called. They settle down. The scene repeats itself daily.

“I am very fearful when I’m outside,” Ackmann said. “I’m always on guard.”

Ackmann isn’t the only person along Calhoun Street who is complaining.

Last week, an attorney who has one of many law offices on the street held a press conference to express support for the city’s latest plan to deal with homeless people. He was joined by other lawyers and business representatives.

The intersection may be the epicenter of tension between Columbia’s homeless population and downtown workers. But it is not the only place in the city’s 36-block downtown where those sides clash.

Homeless men smoking outside the Richland Library’s main branch on Assembly Street catch nervous glances from mothers holding their children’s hands as they rush inside.

And it’s impossible to visit Finlay Park, whether to watch a concert or throw a Frisbee, without seeing people sprawled on the ground. On weekends, homeless flock to the park for free meals.

There are less visible spots where the homeless spend their time.

Take, for example, an alley that runs parallel to Assembly Street between Taylor and Blanding streets. It’s a passageway for people walking to the Oliver Gospel Mission on Taylor Street. But it also is a hiding place.

Beer cans, clothes and potato chip bags are evidence that people have been living behind a chain-link fence meant to protect two large air-conditioning units. Those who argue that homeless are a scourge on downtown Columbia would point to this spot to support their arguments.

Other complaints include loitering, panhandling and going to the bathroom in public places.

Columbia has been debating the homeless issue, particularly panhandling, off and on for around two decades. The most recent flare-up was triggered in August, when City Council unanimously approved a plan spearheaded by Councilman Cameron Runyan to convert the city’s winter shelter near the water treatment plant into a 24-hour center for six months. Homeless would be provided meals, shelter, transportation, medical services and substance abuse treatment while the city looks for a new central service location outside of downtown.

But the plan has a controversial side. It calls for increased police patrols downtown and at the shelter. Police would direct homeless people to the shelter for help, and if they refuse, they could be arrested under a range of public nuisance laws.

City Council on Tuesday is scheduled to clarify details of the plan, most notably whether police will escort individuals to the shelter, whether additional officers will police the downtown core and whether an officer will try to keep the homeless from leaving the shelter during the day and heading into downtown.

Many homeless people take exception with the image that is being portrayed and the aggressive plan to remove them from downtown. They say they are people who have fallen on hard times and are not causing downtown to be unsafe or unsightly.

Twenty-six-year-old Charlton Bamberg has lived at Transitions, on the corner of Main and Calhoun streets, for a month as he tries to save money from his new job washing dishes at a downtown restaurant.

He already has served time in prison for dealing drugs and attempted robbery but said he does not want to return to a life of crime. After prison, he moved to Alabama to stay with his grandmother. But when her house burned a few months ago, he came back to Columbia, where he was raised.

Bamberg resents people thinking he is a bum when they see him walking to work with a backpack or standing on a sidewalk to get fresh air.

“People don’t enjoy living out here,” Bamberg said. “I hate standing out here, trying to get a free meal. It hurts my pride. I don’t have a disability. I’m not mentally ill. What am I doing here?”

On the streets, everyone has story. All involve bad luck and hard knocks, many self-inflicted.

Thursday was a mostly good day for 42-year-old William Payton. He hitched a ride to a day labor job in Sumter, and despite cutting his left index finger and needing five stitches, he had money in his pocket.

“I’ll eat today,” Payton said. “I know that.”

Payton and another homeless friend, Tony Hutchens, 56, were spending part of their afternoon at the Richland Library’s main branch, where they use computers, find public bathrooms and soak up the refreshing air conditioning. Those are the features that make the library a popular place with the homeless.

Most days, Payton said, he walks to a temporary labor business to see if there is a job for him. If no one hires him by 8 a.m., he knows the rest of his day will be spent walking the streets.

At the library, homeless are welcome. But they must follow the rules, which include staying awake. Some days that is hard, Hutchens said.

Sleeping on the streets is not restful. Sirens howl. Train horns blast. Bugs bite. And police come along.

“When you come in here and get relaxed, you go to sleep, and then they kick you out,” Hutchens said.

The library has a security staff that wakes the sleepers, quiets the loud talkers and escorts customers to their cars, said Padgett Mozingo, the library’s spokeswoman. Few homeless cause problems as they use the library to search for jobs and communicate with family, she said.

“You can’t put a label or stereotype on anyone,” Mozingo said. “As long as you are engaged in reading or participating in a library program, we want you there.”

Homeless people frequenting public libraries is nothing new, and it’s not unique to Columbia.

“Anybody who is attuned to economic development or quality of life downtown doesn’t have homelessness on their minds all the time,” Mozingo said.

No homeless person who talked to The State agreed with the Runyan plan. They frequently used references to World War II concentration or internment camps and called it un-American.

Wendell Carney, 57, said a handful of street people cause the majority of problems. And someone like him – an older man whose divorce and construction job loss have left him on the streets – has different needs than someone who is mentally ill.

“That’s what Mr. Runyan is missing,” Carney said. “One issue does not fit all out here.”

But back at the Greek Orthodox church, Ackmann said there is no way for someone like her to know which person should be feared and which just needs a helping hand.

“I don’t know from one homeless person to the next are they a threat or are they not,” she said. “I don’t want to find out. I’m always on guard and very cautious when I’m outside. You just don’t know.”

Reporter Clif LeBlanc contributed. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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