June 13, 2014

Editorial: Columbia, SC making no progress on homelessness

COLUMBIA CITY Council once again has made a mess of the effort to devise a comprehensive response to homelessness.

COLUMBIA CITY Council once again has made a mess of the effort to devise a comprehensive response to homelessness.

When Councilman Cameron Runyan courageously stepped up to take on this tough issue, we held out hope that this time the city would overcome its penchant for trying to go it alone and instead convince a wide network of providers, advocates and others to develop and participate in a well-rounded plan. But the undiplomatic way the discussion has unfolded — and seemingly unraveled — has done little to rally providers and advocates, let alone to culminate in a long-term plan.

Which leads us to reiterate our previous concerns about the city attempting to be the lead authority in addressing homelessness.

Yes, Columbia — and Lexington and Richland counties — has a major role to play. But the city doesn’t possess any expertise in dealing with homelessness. Its role should be to provide resources where appropriate and necessary and, most importantly, to create an environment — politically and morally — in which those who specialize in aiding the homeless can do that critical work. There have been times when Columbia has worked against attempts to aid the homeless, particularly when it came to finding locations for shelters. In one instance, City Council torpedoed a regional effort to establish a comprehensive plan, including a shelter.

And the city’s hands-on attempt to craft a lasting response to homelessness over the past year or so hasn’t proven any more productive, despite claims that a 24-hour shelter has helped curb homelessness downtown.

The effort began with Mr. Runyan rolling out a plan he called Columbia Cares but others called an effort to criminalize homelessness. He sought to help provide homeless services away from downtown — and retail shops and other businesses.

City Council approved an interim plan to allow its winter shelter to stay open 24 hours a day for about six months as a full-service center while business leaders worked to establish a facility away from downtown.

But a plan has yet to come together. The city sent out a request for proposals asking groups what they would do to address the situation. That was quickly recalled, replaced with a request for ideas. Although that led to a particularly in-depth response from a coalition that included the United Way and about two dozen others, City Council did little with it. The city intends to send out yet another RFP in hopes of finding a homeless coordinator.

Because of the lack of progress, Columbia has kept the shelter open longer than planned. It is now slated to be closed July 6, although there is no long-term plan in place.

Mr. Runyan said the shelter run by Christ Central Ministries has “gotten 1,400 off the street” and has the city headed in the right direction and that it’s time for other groups that work with the homeless population to take the lead. That’s true; providers must do their part.

But while Mr. Runyan and Jimmy Jones of Christ Central have shared estimates on the shelter’s impact, no hard numbers have been produced publicly. Nor has Christ Central, which has run the shelter for two years, given acceptable accounting of the public money it receives. By the time the shelter closes, Columbia will have spent $750,000 on it.

We appreciate Christ Central’s ministry and the fact that it has put a significant amount of its own resources into this endeavor. But any public funds must be properly and openly accounted for, not only to determine what they were used for but also to allow public examination of the effectiveness of the services offered. We know the shelter has done some good; but for supporters to simply declare the 24/7 experiment a success fails the accountability test.

Of course, there is a way of gauging the overall success of the plan that led to the round-the-clock shelter set-up. The council had agreed to the arrangement to give it time to devise a long-term response to homelessness. It has failed to do so. Why not set the stage for the experts to address this issue, then get out of the way and let them?

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