HELPING THE HOMELESS

With city’s shelter closing, there’s no place for homeless to go

cleblanc@thestate.comMay 31, 2014 

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • City budget for homelessness

    During the fiscal year that ends June 30, City Council budgeted $1 million for services to the homeless. Here’s a breakdown of those expenses.

    •  The city shelter near the downtown water plant: $500,000. But council authorized an additional $250,000 to keep it open through July 6 by moving money from other accounts.

    •  Security costs for Transitions, a private center for the homeless at Main and Calhoun streets: $275,000.

    •  Support of Housing First, a transitional housing program: $225,000.

    SOURCE: City budget documents

  • Counting the homeless

    The number of homeless people in the city of Columbia is unclear, in part because the population changes regularly as people and families come and go. There are two principal tallies often cited by providers who serve the homeless.

    One-day counts held in January of alternating years

    2009: 853

    2011: 1,065

    2013: 1,518

    Annual counts that include information from a range of service providers

    2011: 3,815

    2012: 4,428

    2013: 5,664

    SOURCE: Tallies supplied by the United Way of the Midlands

When Columbia’s shelter for the homeless closes next month, the city will have spent $750,000 to keep it open and will have made little progress toward finding an enduring way to deal with that population downtown, many who work on the issue say.

Despite evidence that the around-the-clock shelter helped some 1,400 homeless adults while it was open for seven months, some who live or work in the city center are worried about what happens when it closes as planned July 6.

The presence of more homeless people, many drawn to the streets by warm weather, might hurt the business climate. The arrival of 800 students late this summer into a new, Main Street, high-rise apartment building amps up the concerns.

“I’m very concerned that they will bring back an old problem,” Matt Kennell, director of a trade group that advocates for Main Street-area merchants, the City Center Partnership, said last week. “That’s not very welcoming.”

Councilman Cameron Runyan spearheaded a push to provide the homeless with needed services away from the city’s downtown, where they have long clustered. Runyan saw the plan as a way of dealing with a decades-old problem and a way to begin moving city government away from spending $1 million a year on various services for the homeless.

The shelter was a compromise after Runyan’s plan sparked an outcry beyond Columbia and became a lightning rod for national media coverage.

But Runyan said the shelter worked and pointed the city in the right direction.

Now, he said, it’s time for other groups that work with the homeless population as well as the business and faith communities to take the lead.

“We have gotten 1,400 off the street. I would say that’s pretty phenomenal success,” Runyan said. “We had 90 churches and businesses come help (operate the shelter). I would say that’s a success.”

Using the shelter as a central site where homeless people can go and work their way back to stability has “changed the culture” of loitering and lawlessness, he argues.

Bob Wynn is president of the Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association, which is close to the 240-bed city shelter near the Broad River. He’s also been active in working with the city on the homelessness issue.

“I think the shelter has done the job it was tasked with. It made a difference,” Wynn said Friday. “But it is not evidence of a long-term approach that the city should be working on.”

But the outcome is not worth the money spent, Wynn said, largely because of a lack of sufficient financial reporting by Christ Central Ministries. That’s the faith-based organization that has run the shelter the past two years under a contract with the city.

Judy Turnipseed, an activist for the homeless, is more blunt about City Council’s contention that the 24-7 shelter was a necessary Band-Aid while city leaders and service providers devised a fuller plan.

“It seems to me we’re still stuck in the same place,” said Turnipseed, who marched on Main Street against the initial, more strict plan to direct the homeless from the streets and into the shelter. “They’re saying a lot of words. But they’re not getting anywhere. There’s no true will toward getting anything done.”

Runyan sees other achievements. The $750,000 in public money the city will spend on the shelter by the time it closes was leveraged to produce $1.6 million in private contributions through donations of food and provisions, volunteer hours and other assistance, he said.

Council has yet to vote on future shelter operations after July. But members made it clear during recent meetings that there is no appetite to spend more on the shelter, which cost an initial $500,000 with two $125,000 extensions to operate.

Success is in eyes of beholders

Runyan sees the months-old effort by Christ Central as a model of civic-mindedness.

“That ministry has come forward in the spirit of sacrifice,” Runyan said. “The city had a $3 million problem and $500,000 to solve it. We asked, ‘Will you help us?’ and Christ Central said, ‘yes.’ ”

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine sees the impact of the shelter and the city’s response to homelessness during the past year differently.

“In think we’ve been doing a lot of back and forth ... that has wasted our time and energy,” said Devine, who has clashed with Runyan about the way the shelter plan was devised. “I don’t think we’ve made any progress on the (six city homelessness) goals and promises made to constituents. We did not pass anything that said how we were going to meet those goals.”

Devine agrees with Wynn about insufficient transparency by Christ Central. She is among those, including The State newspaper, who have asked the ministry’s director, pastor Jimmy Jones, to provide breakdowns on where shelter clients have been sent for housing, job placement or other needed services.

Jones wrote a report to the city about shelter operations through May 22, saying 1,300 people had received assistance.

The report, obtained by the newspaper, does not address the questions raised by Devine and Wynn, or provide a cost breakdown per person served.

But Runyan said that about 25 percent of the people who registered to use the shelter were directed to services in their hometowns or “other networks” even before admission to the shelter.

Additionally, about 8 percent of those admitted have been returned to their homes and service networks in other communities, the councilman said.

He asked Jones for that data at the newspaper’s request.

Among the figures Jones provided in the shelter report, many of which are estimates:

•  More than 95,000 meals have been served.

•  More than 80,000 trips occurred to transport people to and from the shelter to medical appointments, job services and other places where their needs have been addressed.

The trips on vans, minibuses and other vehicles supplied by Christ Central are a key to minimizing the number of homeless people on downtown streets.

•  Almost 125 people were placed in housing or other services.

More than $700,000 was invested in shelter operations by Christ Central in the form of money, goods and services.

Christ Central’s figures have not been independently verified in large part because the nonprofit organization does not supply data on the shelter to the Homeless Management Information System.

HMIS, as it is known, is a statewide database that maintains year-round information received from a range of service providers, including most shelters and transitional housing programs, according to a 2013 S.C. Coalition for the Homeless report.

Perception, reality

Hard numbers on the shelter’s impact on the presence of homeless people in the city center since it became a 24-7 operation are unavailable.

That leaves the notion of how much of an impact the program has had to individual observations.

Fred Martin, president of the corporation that brought a Mast General store to downtown, said he’s not worried about the shelter closing. Martin last year wrote council a letter outlining his concerns that the number of homeless people had created an environment that made doing business there unsustainable.

Well-known businessman Ben Arnold, whose headquarters are in the Vista, said he has noticed a significant reduction in vagrants and litter on the streets.

That improvement helped by increasing the number of leases he has signed for his properties in the Vista by about 10 percent, Arnold said.

“I think we’ve helped people’s lives with this program,” he said of the around-the-clock shelter, which for years operated only at night during the coldest months.

“It might be more of a perception than a reality that the city was trying to do something (about the homeless on the streets),” Arnold said.

Sarah Lewis, director of the Vista Guild, which represents many businesses in the shopping and entertainment district, has not noticed a dramatic difference.

“I really have not seen a major change ... down here at least,” Lewis said. Even as the weather grows warmer, “I haven’t seen an increase. What I’m seeing is new faces. I don’t know what the causation is.”

Columbia attorney Eric Bland said things have gotten a lot worse along parts of Calhoun Street, which he once called “ground zero” for homelessness.

“As soon as the warmer weather came, they got worse than they were since before the 24-hour shelter,” said Bland, who called a news conference last year to endorse Runyan’s initial, more severe plan to protect downtown businesses.

He said there were four encounters with the homeless in one week on or near his law firm — including a man who dropped his pants and defecated on the steps of an accounting firm.

“The problem is growing worse, and I’m in grave concern of what’s going to happen after they close the shelter,” Bland said.

“There’re no more (police) patrols. The police presence is dramatically different since Ruben Santiago is no longer the chief,” he said.

“What I’m considering is hiring my own security during the day. We’ve actually installed cameras all around our building.”

Newly named chief Skip Holbrook said he was unaware of Bland’s concerns.

“I’m a little taken aback by his comments,” Holbrook said. “I find it disappointing that he’s voicing his displeasure in the paper before he’s given me an opportunity to address his concerns.”

Bland said he has taken his concerns to Runyan and Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Holbrook said he has not changed any department practices when it comes to the homelessness problem, even as he seeks to fill dozens of police officer vacancies. But he said he has yet to see any written plan in the department for dealing with homelessness.

The chief said he supports Runyan’s position that police should enforce quality-of-life laws, such as panhandling, loitering, drug use and prostitution. Those are offenses often related to homelessness.

That’s why he has sent undercover officers into the city’s commercial center, he said.

Next step?

Runyan said he’s working on a long-term approach.

“As the facility closes down, the effort does not,” he said. “I and some others — whose identities I’m not saying — are working on some paths forward.”

Asked whether that means finding a new central location where the homeless could go to get help, Runyan said the 24-hour shelter showed that is a proven key to assistance.

“I don’t know whether I’m willing to answer that with specificity,” he said.

He said the shelter experience, among other accomplishments, helped sort out homeless people who want help and those who “want to be lawless.”

It also led providers, who he said often fight turf battles over the complex issue, to agree to specific goals.

“We’ve done the heavy lifting,” Runyan said. “Now, service providers, let’s all work together to fill the gaps. If we get back into that turf war, we’re going to be back at the end of this summer where we were last summer.

“If they want to continue to throw rocks at my head, that’s their prerogative. But the problems will persist until we learn to work together.”

Lewis, director of Vista Guild, has a more immediate worry once the shelter closes.

“What’s going to be the alternative option now?”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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