August 13, 2013

Editorial: Columbia’s homelessness plan needs communitywide input

WHILE SOME Columbia officials and business owners understandably talk with extreme urgency about the need to address downtown homelessness, this is hardly a new phenomenon.

WHILE SOME Columbia officials and business owners understandably talk with extreme urgency about the need to address downtown homelessness, this is hardly a new phenomenon.

In the mid-1990s, elected and business leaders deemed homelessness and aggressive panhandling a crisis that threatened the business district, driving customers elsewhere to avoid the hassle.

Although the city cracked down on panhandling and sought other ways to deal with homelessness, it never has been able to make an appreciable difference. It hasn’t been for a lack of ideas; many providers — including the Oliver Gospel Mission and The Salvation Army — tried to improve their services and facilities to aid in the effort.

Unfortunately, the city, pressured by businesses and residents, often sought to thwart those providers’ efforts. While Transitions is lauded for its work, the Elmwood Avenue homeless center was established in spite of the city.

Were any of those past attempts the long-term answer? We don’t know. But we do know that although City Council has been more helpful in recent years by funding the winter shelter and other initiatives, it long has been part of the problem rather than the solution.

We commend Councilman Cameron Runyan for attacking this issue head-on, setting himself up for criticism from all sides. Mr. Runyan will offer a proposal today aimed at removing the homeless from the core business district and setting up a long-term plan that he said would help restore hope and dignity to the homeless by offering them ways to improve their lives. The council also is expected to hear a proposal from a panel appointed by former city manager Steve Gantt.

Mr. Runyan’s is more comprehensive — and controversial.

He wants to put more police officers downtown to strictly enforce vagrancy laws and warn against loitering, public urination and other nuisance violations. Short term, he wants the city’s winter shelter to stay open 24 hours a day for seven months as a full-service center while business leaders work to establish a facility to move the homeless and services out of downtown, perhaps to a rural setting.

But some service providers, neighborhood groups and City Council members are skeptical. That is no small matter.

Mr. Runyan and those aiding his effort must be open and transparent and work to get buy-in from not only council members and providers but people and entities across the community. Even in presenting his plan, Mr. Runyan should be careful to seek a strong consensus on the council rather than ram it through via a close vote.

While we await further explanation about Mr. Runyan’s proposal, here are some obvious questions that stick out so far:

•  Will Columbia become a place where those without shelter or a job are jailed for refusing to be bused out of the city?
•  What would moving the homeless mean for Transitions and the Oliver Gospel Mission?
• How will the city pay for it all, from a beefed-up police presence to the development of a new shelter?
•  What about transportation? Even if the city manages to come up with the best transportation, the homeless are going to find their way back downtown, because people like to congregate where other people are — downtown.

If a homeless center is to be located in unincorporated Richland County, city officials must work closely with County Council. We’re not sure that’s happening. If it were, would the county have imposed a moratorium on shelters while it considers an ordinance regulating them? It would be unwise for city officials to identify property for a homeless center without input from county officials. That’s a recipe for a fight — and failure.

Ultimately, this must be a collaborative, communitywide effort, not a plan developed to meet the needs of a particular group. If it is not inclusive, it will generate considerable opposition, leading to yet another failed attempt to address homelessness in our capital city.

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