At 49, Tommy Capps is homeless because he couldn't live with his parents and respect himself.
Cathy Novinger, chairwoman of the Midlands Housing Alliance, wants to help him. She and her board have raised $11.5 million to build what they call a homeless transition center at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue that will open in April 2011.
Novinger can build the center, but she needs $2.5 million a year in order to open its doors. And she desperately needs Columbia City Council to give her the money.
"They have to be part of the financial operating picture," Novinger said.
That's not a picture Robert Young, of Elmwood Park, wants to look at. He doesn't understand why the housing alliance, which he calls "a bunch of do-gooders who have taken on a cause and they all live out in Spring Valley," insists on concentrating the homeless in his neighborhood.
"I don't care if they want to have a community shelter, but let's have satellites spread out in every community in Columbia," he said.
Homelessness has become a major issue in the Columbia mayor's race, and much of the debate has centered on whether the city should provide funding for the Main Street homeless center.
The homeless center was a major issue at a forum Tuesday night at the Richland County Public Library focusing on homeless issues.
Of the three fundraising leaders in the race for mayor, only city councilman Kirkman Finlay spoke against giving operational funding to the homeless center.
Finlay's homeless plan includes continuing the $500,000 a year the city spends on its emergency winter shelter and using some of the city's economic contingency fund to pay for six additional security officers on Main Street, known as the "yellow shirts."
After that, Finlay said, there wouldn't be any money left for the Midlands Housing Alliance.
"There is no more money coming," Finlay said about the city's budget. "We have to find a way to do this in a different way that is not dependent on the city of Columbia writing a check."
Steve Benjamin, an attorney running for mayor, said, "Standing on the sidelines and not funding the effort is a dereliction of duty," but noted the city could use its funding to ensure the shelter is safe.
"We need to use that funding as a carrot to require certain things of the housing alliance, including criminal background checks on folks who will utilize the comprehensive services center," Benjamin said.
"Some neighborhoods in downtown Columbia bear a disproportionate share of responsibilities in dealing with the challenges of homelessness. It's important that the city lead as we secure these neighborhoods."
Candidate Steve Morrison's homeless plan includes providing public downtown restrooms so the homeless won't have to use "somebody's church parking lot," a reference to a trio of downtown churches whose representatives spoke at City Council recently about the homeless problem.
Morrison said the city should fund the homeless center because it would be more expensive for the city in the long term to ignore the problem, said candidate Steve Morrison.
"It is more expensive to leave a person in crisis than to lead them out of crisis," he said.
While the candidates were debating homelessness in the library's auditorium, Capps sat upstairs at one of the library's computers, trying to find a job.
"I've been homeless off and on for 12 years. I've worked myself out of it three times," he said. "But the economy is so bad, it doesn't last long."
He stared at the screen until his eyes hurt before giving up, settling back in his chair and pulling up an old episode of "Star Trek."