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Councilman seeks to stop soup kitchen

Columbia City Councilman E.W. Cromartie proposed Wednesday the city take any steps possible to stop the Salvation Army from opening a soup kitchen for the homeless in the 3000 block of Farrow Road.

"A lot of people who are homeless have mental problems and a lot have criminal records," said Cromartie, predicting shootings, assaults and homeless people using bushes as bathrooms would rise in the area around the site.

"Once it gets in that location, once the feeding starts, ... they will never be out of there," Cromartie said.

Council took no action on Cromartie's proposal. Instead, members said they would try to assemble a meeting next week of local soup kitchen and homeless housing providers to explore whether a more coordinated approach to services is now possible.

The Farrow Road site is bordered by Davis and Dingle dentists at 3026 Farrow Road and a three-story medical office building at 3010 Farrow Road.

Situated on a high-traffic street in an office district, the site is roughly across the street from the Ronald McDonald House and a quarter-mile from the edge of the Palmetto Health Richland hospital campus. Several predominantly African-American neighborhoods are close to the site.

Cromartie, who represents that district, made his remarks during a frank, wide-ranging discussion - typical of such discussions over the past 30 years on the city's scattershot efforts to resolve its long-standing homeless situation.

No one has a precise number, but more than 1,000 homeless have been counted in the Columbia area. That number includes a core of an estimated 250 "chronic street homeless" as well as hundreds of individuals and families who are without homes because of unfortunate economic or social circumstances.

Some 20 or more soup kitchens and housing programs exist to care for some of their needs. And the city itself operates a winter shelter, using buses to collect people from around the city who need a place to sleep when it is cold. Still, Columbia has no coordinated, centralized approach to the issue.

Wednesday's airing of the homeless issue took some council members by surprise.

"I didn't know it was on the agenda until I got there," Mayor Bob Coble said later. The mayor said that for more than 20 years such discussions have bedeviled City Council, as a solution to homelessness has eluded public officials and activists.

The Salvation Army recently closed its long-standing shelter at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue. At that site, it fed up to 200 people a day. It did not provide sleeping quarters in recent years.

Steve Anastasion, Salvation Army spokesman, told City Council Wednesday his group was open to working with the city to allay neighbors' concerns about security.

Anastasion said the Salvation Army has signed a three-year lease with an option to buy the one-story property - formerly the Easter Seal building. He indicated his group would have a hard time relocating from the Farrow Street site.

The Salvation Army is a donor-based group with limited resources, he said. The Farrow Road site is on a bus route and is properly zoned as a location where the homeless can be fed, he said.

City planning and zoning director Marc Mylott told council the proposed soup kitchen qualified as an acceptable use in the business district in the 3000 block of Farrow Road.

Cromartie asked him, "Marc, is there anything we can legally do ... so we can stop this siting in that residential neighborhood?"

"No, sir, there isn't," Mylott said.

Cromartie said he does not want to sue the Salvation Army but does want to explore all options to keep it from opening. The Salvation Army said it had no definite opening date but could open sometime in the spring.

Cromartie and Councilman Sam Davis said the Salvation Army's soup kitchen will lower property values and cause existing businesses to lose customers and eventually flee the area.

Cromartie said he supports the Salvation Army generally but favors a coordinated, centralized approach to address homeless issues.

Cromartie noted all local major facilities for shelters - with their crime and other problems - are located in his council district. He challenged other council members, and specifically Belinda Gergel, who represents Shandon and other upscale neighborhoods, to let a soup kitchen operate in their districts.

Gergel took the lead in trying to assemble a meeting of various homeless service providers.

"Let's look at this as an opportunity to see what we can do," she said.

Approximate location of proposed Salvation Army soup kitchen



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