Colgate: City Council squandered perfect solution for homeless

October 4, 2013 

— In her Sept. 6 column, “Sheltering the homeless in not enough,” Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Devine notes that the homeless population consists of those dealing with such problems as mental illness, substance abuse and unemployment. It is a complicated problem, unsolvable with “a single plan, program or solution,” one she says requires “mental-health professionals, job-training programs and affordable housing.” As she calls for a cadre of mental-health experts, veterans-affairs advocates, affordable-housing professionals, government leaders, social workers and law-enforcement officials to help in the solution, she heralds the fact that “Columbia is the home of progressive leaders and caring citizens.” Thus, it is possible “to effectively address this problem.”

She’s right. Too bad she and others on the City Council squandered a perfect opportunity to make this happen.

The old State Hospital on Bull Street could have provided the mentally ill and the rest of the homeless population an opportunity to live, work and receive services downtown in their own town, with a fair chance of becoming part of the bigger community. The wall around the hospital could have been the great divide that some want. But City Council voted for a boutique city.

Columbia could have led the way in finding what Ms. Devine describes as “a global approach … that will benefit the community as a whole.”

Those beyond our borders concerned would have turned to us for leadership, just like they did when Dr. James Woods Babcock gained national attention for being the first to recognize and treat pellagra. The red cupola on the Babcock building, the iconic image of the State Hospital, is named for him.

The vision Ms. Devine calls for now should have been fought for in City Council to protect and rebuild the State Hospital, one of the first state-funded mental hospitals in the country. Developer Bob Hughes could market a different development plan to potential tenants if all involved agreed. After all, there is money in health care, housing and the retail that still would be in demand on that property. And yes, it would mean the homeless would remain downtown, but in an environment that might eliminate some of the problems plaguing the downtown area.

Granted, this isn’t the quick fix the current homeless problem demands. Instead, it is one big plan that always will be needed, because any one of us could become the one who needs to obtain mercy.

Anne Imperato Colgate

Columbia

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