COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia’s taxpayers will foot another $331,000 bill to keep the city’s homeless shelter open into the summer while City Council continues its search for long-term answers to dealing with the homeless population downtown.
One of those answers is likely to be finding a homelessness coordinator whose job would be to fill gaps in the range of services currently available to homeless people. Council decided Tuesday to ask the regional Council of Governments to help find a qualified person.
As it moves toward hiring a coordinator, council opted to grant a second 45-day extension to Christ Central Ministries to operate the 260-bed facility as an around-the-clock operation until July 6, at a cost of $125,000. But running the one-time winter shelter during the summer will require the city to spend $206,000 to air-condition the buildings that house adult men and women.
If the city gets out of the homelessness business, as some council members prefer, the buildings would be converted to a training facility for Columbia police officers or to fill some other city need, city manager Teresa Wilson and council members have said.
The vote on the $331,000 expenditure was 7-0.
Council had extended the shelter’s closing date once at a $125,000-per-45-day rate before Tuesday’s vote.
Christ Central, a private, faith-based organization that runs its own programs for the poor and homeless across the state, has told the city it’s willing to accept two more 45-day extension – through Aug. 22 and Oct. 6, City Hall staffers told council.
But the organization has said it will not operate the shelter after Oct. 6, assistant city attorney Jeanne Brooker said during a council work session.
Keeping the shelter open will allow the city and private groups to devise a plan that will address the needs of the homeless and the complaints of Main Street-area businesses that complain the homeless are a blight on commerce.
Council spent much of its time Tuesday on a debate about a homelessness coordinator.
No decision was reached on whether that person would be paid or a volunteer.
No decision was reached on whether the coordinator would become a city employee or a contract worker.
No decision was reached whether the coordinator could work with one of the current service organizations. Councilman Cameron Runyan was adamant that the coordinator not be beholden to any private group.
“It’s got to be someone who’s independent of all the agencies,” Runyan said.
But councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh insisted that the coordinator be chosen based on their expertise in homelessness regardless of their ties to what Runyan considers to be vested interests.
Mayor Steve Benjamin argued successfully that the coordinator be a regional response to homelessness – not a city response because homeless people from outside of Columbia come here.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.