Columbia’s Finlay Park is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve seen in any city. It has gorgeous lawns, man-made ponds with lovely fountains spraying mist in the air, and elaborate brick stairwells amid its artful and almost finished architecture. There is a stage for live music and a cafe gated off that advertises jazz.
It could be a masterpiece, but a few shortcomings deny its potential to serve the community, or the majority of its community. You won’t find families, children and other people enjoying themselves here. Besides the Do Not Enter tape that outlines unfinished projects, the most obvious oddity is that everyone in the park on Saturday mornings appears to be homeless.
It looks similar to the crowd at Transitions, the homeless shelter where I interned for a year in grad school to study homelessness. And understandably so: At Transitions, everyone has to be out of bed early in the morning; at Oliver Gospel Mission, you have to be out of the building with your belongings. Since affordable housing and employment are scarce for those experiencing homelessness, Finlay Park becomes a refuge from the streets.
The simple and first reaction may be to wish the homeless population just went somewhere else. Ineffective solutions are to move them away from desirable real estate. Just as the unfinished Finlay Park continues to be a disservice for the families of Columbia, the unfinished investment in taking care of the homeless costs everyone in tax money, overcrowded emergency rooms, increased crime, soliciting and loitering.
The lack of affordable housing, employment training and mental health services will continue to increase the homeless population until Columbia supports better programs to address these problems. Columbia does not have to reinvent the wheel; many cities are doing it right.
Investment in human services is the proven and effective way to fix “the problem.” Columbia has a great library. We could also have a great park.