COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to open a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week emergency homeless shelter for seven months beginning Sept. 24.
Council approved general guidelines for how it will proceed in dealing with the city’s homeless people. But council did not enter a formal contract with Christ Central Ministries, the organization that is slated to run the shelter. That contract will be discussed at council’s Sept. 17 meeting.
The city will provide the same amount of funding it did last year, $500,000 in a contract with Christ Central Ministries. It also will pay for about $40,000 for costs associated with utilities.
Some details of the multifaceted proposal include:
• Offering three meals a day at the shelter
• A webpage on the city’s website for the homeless to learn about service providers
• Increased “No Panhandling” and “No Loitering” signs along Calhoun, Main and Sumter streets
• Increased trash cans on those streets
• Vans and buses operated by Christ Central to take people to and from the shelter and to other services
• Christ Central will present monthly financial reports to council.
Tuesday night’s meeting was not as contentious as the last time council discussed the issue in the wee hours of the morning. Still, city residents, leaders and some homeless people spent a couple of hours voicing their opinions, often generating cheers from homeless advocates.
The plan is just a first step in addressing the layers of the homeless issue in Columbia, council members said.
In his motion, Mayor Steve Benjamin said: “The city of Columbia, Christ Central Ministries and service providers recognize that meeting the challenge of homelessness and poverty requires a community response and that this is a ‘we’ challenge, not a ‘them’ challenge and never an effort to deprive any individuals of civil liberties or to criminalize poverty.”
The mayor repeatedly emphasized that the issue should not be an “us versus them” mentality.
Council also voted to undo what it did at the last meeting, which had everyone confused, including council members themselves.
Councilman Cameron Runyan, who proposed the homeless plan at the last council meeting, said the city is not going to forcibly confine anyone to the shelter. He took responsibility for letting that idea get out.
Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago presented his plan for policing downtown as part of the effort to dispel the notion that police will force people to go the shelter and then hold them there with armed guards.
Santiago said he already had stepped up patrols downtown about two months ago. Seven to 12 police officers are walking the downtown district at any given time, he said.
The department has not pulled officers from other neighborhoods. Instead, cops who work with special policing teams have been shifted to the area, Santiago said.
As for police presence at the city’s emergency shelter, Santiago said officers would not be a permanent fixture.
They will be seen patrolling, he said.
Officers will be present in daylight hours but not walking through the shelter at night.
Christ Central will provide security for the shelter. Those security personnel are called “red shirts.” They are not armed and do not wear badges.
People staying at the shelter will go through screening for things such as weapons and alcohol. But Christ Central will do that, not Columbia police, Santiago said.
Santiago’s presentation was followed by City Council grilling the Rev. Jimmy Jones about Christ Central Ministries’ plan.
Jones said he would welcome other organizations’ help, and Benjamin’s ordinance sets in motion public participation in a long-term response to homelessness.
“The winter shelter is not going to solve everything,” Jones said. “Christ Central’s only position is to serve as a catalyst to start the process.”
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