Once temporary homeless shelter taking on an air of permanence

05/06/2014 6:51 PM

05/06/2014 7:27 PM

When Columbia’s so-called winter homeless shelter was opened a few years back near the Broad River, there were some people who didn’t want it there even short-term and expressed concern that, once open, it would never leave. The Beach Co. of Charleston, which was building the CanalSide neighborhood, threatened to sue to prevent the shelter from becoming a permanent homeless facility.

Of course, city officials vowed it wouldn’t be permanent.

But since it’s opening, the shelter has made a slow, steady march toward permanence. And on Tuesday, it took on a new air of permanence, so to speak, when the council decided to keep it open longer than planned this season and to outfit it with air-conditioning.

When the shelter was first established, it only opened at night during cold months.

Things began to change when Councilman Cameron Runyan admirably took charge of the homeless issue, although he did ruffle some feathers when people thought he wanted to simply boot the homeless out of downtown by any means necessary. Mr. Runyan was responding to downtown business people who said that homeless people loitering and panhandling was hurting business. While he wanted to address those concerns, Mr. Runyan said he also wanted to get the homeless the services and support they needed.

Last year, City Council signed off on Christ Central Ministries, which runs the shelter for Columbia, overseeing a 24-hour operation that would take homeless people in off downtown streets and offer them services. The shelter opened in October and was scheduled to close April 30.

Recently council members began talking about extending the closing date. On Tuesday, they voted unanimously to spend $331,000 to keep the shelter open until July 6.

But I wouldn’t count on that being a firm closing date, not when most of the money the council voted to spend Tuesday will pay for air-conditioning. For sure, it can get hot in Columbia and you’ve got to keep folks comfortable. But if you’re going to spend $206,000 in taxpayer money to make the shelter comfortable, that doesn’t feel temporary.

Supposedly the intent is to keep the 24-hour shelter open to give the council more time to craft a long-term plan. Seems to me the so-called temporary, round-the-clock emergency shelter is becoming more a part of the long-term plan every day. How else do you justify spending that kind of money?

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