Reviews are mixed and results largely in the eyes of beholders nearly three months into Columbia’s controversial experiment with a 24-hour shelter designed to reduce homelessness in the city center.
“You cannot walk around downtown and not see that it is vastly, vastly better. I live and work downtown,” said city councilman Cameron Runyan, who has become a lightning rod in the effort to deal with a decades-long challenge.
But businesses in the high-traffic Vista entertainment district are seeing different results.
“Here’s what we’ve noticed since the (around-the-clock) shelter opened – we definitely have seen more homeless in the Vista,” Vista Guild director Sarah Lewis said Friday.
Arsenal Hill resident Katie Spann said she’s notice little change in her neighborhood, which is closest to the shelter near the Broad River downtown.
In Elmwood Park, fewer homeless people are walking through the neighborhood, but foot traffic has picked up at the Main Street intersection, neighborhood association president Chuck Archie said.
Elizabeth Marks of the Historic Robert Mills neighborhood farther east from the shelter said any improvement has been negligible. “I guess we’re still waiting for the change to happen ... that promised change.”
While regular people and partisans see the results in the highly charged debate differently, volunteers have stepped up to fill basic needs of their fellow humans.
“Some of the things we get upset about in our society just pale in comparison to the needs of these people,” said Scotty Mill, owner of a West Columbia sprinkler company that sent 22 employees to grill burgers and offer candy canes Wednesday evening at the shelter. “They just want a place to eat or a place to sleep. We saw a lot of broken people last night. It was a humbling experience.”
Statistics and people
Pastor Jimmy Jones, whose faith-based organization Christ Central Ministries is overseeing the shelter for the city, said the facility has brought some relief. But it is not a solution.
“I think we’re happy about the progress we’ve made,” Jones said, citing that 700 homeless men and women had signed up through Friday to use the shelter. “But we’re not going to say we’re satisfied. We want to make it better for the homeless, but we want (the city) to be better at helping the homeless.”
Columbia Police Department figures show that citywide property crimes reported to the FBI that were committed by homeless people are up almost 29 percent from the same time last year. The single biggest jump was 140 percent in auto thefts.
“The numbers are starting to reflect that the homeless are actually committing more property crimes than we thought,” interim police chief Ruben Santiago said.
Violent crimes committed by the homeless plummeted almost 71 percent, according to figures he released.
Nuisance crimes – such as alcohol offenses, public urination and disorderly conduct that do not rise to the level of being sent to the FBI – rose from about 24 percent (public drunkenness and liquor law violations) to as much as 83 percent (urination).
Loitering violations, however, dropped by almost 43.5 percent, the figures show.
Panhandling in the 37-block city center district around Main Street has decreased since July, according to a chart compiled by yellow-shirted security personnel who patrol the area. The City Center Partnership, which directs the yellow shirts, did not have precise numbers readily available late last week, said Eli Ott, its operations manager.
But the chart reflects that incidents per month have dropped from about 95 since summer to about 55 by mid-November.
Runyan points to the 700 registered shelter guests at the 240-bed facility that until this season had been an overnight, emergency shelter open only during colder months. “We’re essentially at double the clip we were at last year.”
Views from neighborhoods, the Vista
Marks’ Historic Robert Mills neighborhood abuts the city center.
“We have not seen an overall decrease in traffic or incidents,” said Marks, who has been skeptical of Runyan’s plan, which was revised by City Council before being implemented. “We still have people camping out on porches. We can’t tell that (homeless people) are taking advantage of (the shelter).”
Spann said she has noticed more homeless people walking along Laurel Street in her Arsenal Hill neighborhood near City Hall.
“It’s toward the evening, that twilight time,” Spann said, wondering if the shelter accepts walk-up guests for the night.
Runyan said the only way someone will be admitted without pre-registering is if law enforcement officers take them.
Richland County jail guards have escorted 177 ex-detainees to the shelter since early November after they are released at night on bond, Santiago said.
The chief said he does not know how many of them agreed to stay at the shelter, found a way home or walked to downtown.
Spann said that despite a lack of evidence that things are better in Arsenal Hill, “I’m hoping (the shelter) helps people ... and alleviates people being in the city center.”
Vista businesspeople have noticed the pattern of homeless people walking has changed, Guild director Lewis said. Some are now coming from the river rather than from Main Street.
Runyan said they aren’t coming from the shelter. The only way someone may leave is by one of seven used vans or minibuses that Christ Central uses to transport them.
It’s up to police to enforce city laws on any new homeless people who loiter in the Vista, sleep on benches or violate other Columbia ordinances.
“Law enforcement has got to tighten, tighten down,” the architect of the city’s plan said. “It may be that we need to dedicate another law enforcement officer down there.”
Santiago said that since the start of the school year he has assigned two officers on weekdays and added one on weeknights. During weekends, two officers with police dogs patrol the area, too.
A few city benches have been removed from the Vista, and city workers have installed dividers in 17 benches to discourage homeless people sleeping on them, said assistant city manager Missy Gentry.
Runyan said he did not know what the city had done with the benches. He would have objected because that does not hold homeless people accountable.
It’s another example of the city accommodating the problem rather than enforcing nuisance laws, he said.
More homeless from where?
Anecdotal evidence indicates that more homeless people are coming to town.
But the reason is as unclear as perceptions of how well the shelter is working.
Santiago said he receives reports from business people, residents and his officers that people are coming to Columbia from North Carolina and Georgia.
“We’ve started asking them,” he said of police officers who encounter homeless people. “What we’re finding is they’re saying, ‘I’m from Atlanta, or Charlotte or Raleigh or Durham.’ But I can’t say ... (that) other cities are shipping them here. It could be seasonal.”
The department is beginning to track reports in an attempt to analyze the trend, Santiago said.
Christ Central’s Jones said he believes the rise is attributable to Congress restricting unemployment benefits that are running out, people losing their jobs or government checks such as disability payments being cut.
“Those fragile ones are coming to the streets,” Jones said.
Shelter workers are working to find them homes, jobs or treatment for addiction or mental illness “as fast as we can,” he said.
Runyan and Jones issued a challenge to Columbia’s corps of homelessness services providers.
“There’s been very, very little participation by the traditional providers,” Runyan said of involvement with the shelter. “They’ve decided they’re not going to participate in the city’s goals.”
Jones agrees and added that critical neighborhood leaders and Columbia’s business community could do more.
“It’s all those people who complain about ‘their’ problem and never come down to help,” Jones said. “Those that find nothing but fault. Tell some of those crybabies to get off their butts and come help.”
Jones specifically called for city businesses to help buy two more vans or buses to ferry 185 shelter guests to 14 destinations on daily routes that carry them to medical, addiction and mental health programs or to job interviews. That transportation system keeps the homeless from walking around the city, he said.
Mill, owner of Palmetto Automatic Sprinkler Co. in West Columbia, said employees quickly responded to his email seeking volunteers to serve seven meals over a six-month period at the shelter.
“It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “We served them. We spoke with them. They were appreciative.
“It wasn’t just somebody who drove up and dropped off a box of food.
“Our people felt safe and their people, obviously, felt comfortable.”
Mill said the 2½-hour encounter went so well that his employees want to come back on a Sunday so they can bring spouses and their children.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.