Update: Homeless problem is depressing investment in downtown Columbia, business people and city leaders say

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 3, 2013 

Eric Bland speaks at a news conference Tuesday about the homeless.

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— A group of high-profile business people including realtors and bankers joined Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and City Councilman Cameron Runyan Tuesday to urge City Council to take positive action at a meeting later in the day on a plan to deal with the homeless.

To demonstrate how much action is needed, speakers at the news conference in the Barringer Building quoted statistics they say show how severely the homeless who congregate in the inner city are hurting downtown’s economy.

Boyd Jones, executive vice president in charge of commercial lending at NBSC, said the presence of so many homeless is depressing investment throughout the downtown area.

“Simple assaults, misdemeanor crimes, are escalating rapidly over the last two to three years. What we want is a clean and safe environment,” Jones said. “If it’s clean and safe, businesses are going to invest.”

These days, the main attractions of Columbia’s inner city — the large air-conditioned library with its free computer terminals, the open-air Finlay Park and the Columbia Art Museum plaza with its fountain — are magnets for the homeless, many of who also get free meals at soup kitchens run by area churches.

Speakers said the food, along with places to hang out like Finlay Park, have succeeded in attracting one of the highest concentrations of homeless perhaps in the nation.

“It is a homeless situation that has spun out of control,” said attorney Eric Bland, a downtown property owner who has volunteered to be a liaison between Runyan and local business people. Bland praised Runyan and Benjamin for pushing the comprehensive plan to deal with homeless that council will take up Tuesday night.

An example of depressed property is a building across from the county courthouse that has been for sale for 10 years, but no one will buy it, Bland claims, because of the homeless. The seller has dropped his price from $1 million to $400,000 but there are still no takers, he added.

Speakers bemoaned how numerous homeless are drawn daily to what should be the city’s premier attractions, driving other visitors away.

Among those attending Tuesday’s news conference were Barringer Building owner Tom Prioreschi, Ben Arnold, president of Arnold Companies, and Al Saad of Foster, Saad & Co.

Speakers stressed that they were dismayed at misinformation implying city officials want to “warehouse the homeless.”

Bland and others said their plan involves helping the homeless on numerous fronts, including relocating a number of church-based food kitchens now in the heart of downtown.

“We are feeding people without supplying bathrooms, and the obvious results ensue,” Prioreschi said.

Runyan said he has talked with numerous churches and they seem willing to cooperate in coming up with plans to feed the homeless in a manner that will ease problems on Main Street. “Everyone from in the faith-based community is very eager to help the city to move beyond this challenge,” Runyan said. “If that means relocating services, to this point, I’ve gotten great enthusiasm.”

Bland said, “We are not anti-homeless. This isn’t about interning or putting homeless people in an area where they will not get services and they essentially will be warehoused.”

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