Columbia’s controversial new homeless shelter opens

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 4, 2013 

— Columbia’s latest experiment in managing a swell of homeless people downtown – which began in a roar of controversy this spring – starts Saturday.

At 4 p.m., doors will open at the side-by-side temporary buildings tucked behind the city’s oldest water plant. The shelter that previously provided homeless adults only a place to sleep on cold nights is now an around-the-clock center where homeless men and women may eat three meals a day, be bused to and from appointments, sleep safely and get help in returning to stable lives, shelter organizers say.

The center will be run by Christ Central Ministries as a 24/7 operation for the next seven months. During that time, city leaders say they will work on a longer-term plan that businesses, City Hall and neighborhoods hope will help better serve homeless people as well as make them less visible in the streets and parks of Columbia’s commercial center.

“The culture of enabling is ending,” said city Councilman Cameron Runyan, who is the architect of the shelter plan that has brought Columbia often unflattering national media coverage in which some charged that council was evicting the homeless from the city center.

“We are helping them by walking beside them to help with a path forward,” Runyan said. “We’re not looking to warehouse people.”

Christ Central leader, pastor Jimmy Jones, agreed. “Adult day-care is not going to happen down there,” Jones said of the newly opened center.

This is the first time Christ Central has run an around-the-clock center for a government agency, Jones said. He said his organization will learn through on-the-job experience.

Neither Runyan nor Jones would say how quickly homeless people would become less visible in the 36-block city center.

“We’ve got almost 150 folks pre-registered,” Runyan said Friday. “So, boom! There’s 150 people who want help” and no longer will wander the streets. But, he added, “There are those who don’t want help.”

Expectations are high in business circles, which pushed hard for relief from homeless people that business owners said often scared their customers and employees or damaged private property. Residential neighbors also complained.

Matt Kennell, director of City Center Partnership, which represents Main Street-area businesses, said the vicinity north of Calhoun Street – sometime called “Ground Zero” for homelessness – is likely to benefit first.

“We think it will have an immediate effect at the Hope Plaza location,” Kennell said of the headquarters of Christ Central and the adjacent Transitions, which opened in 2011 to help serve the homeless.

Kennell said he expects the 24/7 shelter will reduce the numbers from Blanding Street north, but not as much in the blocks that lead south to the State House.

Tom and Judy Turnipseed were outspoken in challenging Runyan’s original plan to assign police officers to stricter enforcement of nuisance laws that could have landed some homeless people in jail.

The Turnipseeds, who for years have served meals to the homeless, said they plan to use their contacts in the homeless community to monitor how the changes unfold.

“It seems a little hazy to me as to how exactly it’s going to work,” Judy Turnipseed said of the shelter plan. “How much freedom of movement are they going to be able to have? We’re going to have to wait and see.”

A key to lowering the visibility of homeless people is the use of four mini-buses that will carry shelter residents along travel routes that soon will have 32 designated stops.

Anyone accepted at the shelter will be provided a photo ID they can wear around their necks. That ID will become a pass to gain access to the 240-bed shelter as well as to get onto or off the mini-buses, Jones said.

“The transportation route cannot be misconstrued as another bus route,” he said. “It is very designated to those on the (registration) list.” Bus drivers will not be “running around the city for someone who needs a ride.”

Jones and his team were finalizing the routes this week.

At that time, however, the mini-buses had been assigned five major stops on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Those stops include Transitions, One Stop (for unemployment services), Oliver Gospel Mission and the metropolitan area’s substance abuse treatment facility off Colonial Drive.

Tuesday and Thursday routes include those stops plus vocation rehabilitation centers, two Goodwill locations and the state offices where people can get government-issued IDs.

The city is paying Christ Central $500,000 to run the expanded shelter for the next seven months. Jones said his faith-based organization has agreed to absorb an estimated $1.2 million he calculates the shelter will cost to operate and staff beyond the $500,000 in public money.

He’s also reaching out to other private providers and individuals who want to help after a one-week start-up period.

“We’re appealing to the public to get involved,” Jones said. “But we want to know how best to use their time and talent.” He plans to invite those who are interested to a series of organizational meetings.

“The best efforts are yet to be seen,” he said. “If you want to see what difference we’ll make – that takes time.”

Staying at the city’s homeless shelter

The shelter, which opens Saturday afternoon, can accommodate up to 240 people. Anyone wanting to stay at the center any time during the next seven months must register in advance. Clients may not walk or drive to the center to register. Here are the ways to register:

•  Sign up at a kiosk in the parking lot of Hope Plaza at Main and Calhoun streets. The kiosk is open Mondays through Fridays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

•  Call (855) 678-4357 to get information on registration options.

•  Be taken to the shelter by social service provider, a hospital or by police.

SOURCE: Christ Central Ministries

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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