Columbia's homeless a safety concern for Mast General Store

A retailer credited with leading the revitalization of Columbia’s Main Street has expressed concern to city officials about safety issues associated with downtown’s homeless population.

“Steps need to be taken now rather than later,” Fred Martin, president of Mast General Store, wrote in a letter, dated July 11 and obtained by The State, that was mailed to Columbia City Council members.

Mast’s decision to open a store two years ago on Main Street was considered a turning point in efforts to revitalize that corridor, which since has attracted a variety of other retailers, offices and residences.

While the letter sounded a hopeful tone that the issues could be resolved, Martin also wrote: “We are now experiencing an environment where our staff members and our guests no longer feel safe even within the confines of our building.”

The situation makes it “virtually impossible for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model,” he wrote.

Efforts to reach Martin for comment Friday and Monday were unsuccessful.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said Monday he wasn’t aware of any specific incidents that have happened within Mast to make employees or customers feel unsafe.

But he acknowledged there is a problem on Main Street, ranging from homeless people who have no place to go to panhandlers begging for money. “Aggressive panhandlers give me great cause for concern, as well.”

Benjamin said city officials have open lines of communication with Mast store officials and have encouraged them to speak out about any problems that concern them.

“The opinion of Mast means a great deal to me,” said Benjamin, who has made downtown revitalization a priority of his administration and is seeking a second term in a November election. “They’ve become a very strong partner.”

Benjamin said he is “not concerned at all” that Mast could leave Main Street.

But he said it is vital the homelessness issue be addressed, adding he thinks Martin’s letter is intended to make sure city leaders understand the retailer supports a six-step plan put forth by City Councilman Cameron Runyan to address homelessness.

Other downtown residents and retailers also have expressed concerns about the homeless, Benjamin said. Last year, for instance, one resident questioned their impact on the plans to redevelop the former mental health hospital site on nearby Bull Street.

In his letter, Mast’s Martin said “the hardest part of revitalizing the downtown area is overcoming the perception that it is unsafe. It can be done! Success has been achieved in other downtowns that we are a part of.”

Martin said improvements have been made since Mast opened in May 2011 and other retailers and residences followed. But “over the last six months, we have witnessed a trend in the opposite direction.”

Benjamin and Runyan attributed the problem’s recurrence to a cutback in federal and state spending due to across-the-board budget cuts. They said money has been cut for everything from mental health care to food stamps, exacerbating the problem.

Solutions to the homelessness problem so far have been less than successful.

Like Mast, Transitions, a homeless shelter at Main Street and Elmwood Avenue, also opened two years ago but has struggled with funding.

“I’m not interested in funding failure,” Runyan said. “What we’re doing is clearly not working.”

Runyan’s plan outlines six steps to control the problem of homelessness, including a homeless center outside of the downtown area that would evaluate why each person is homeless and provide needed assistance.

Mac Bennett, president and chief executive of the United Way of the Midlands, called Runyan’s plan “a good starting point about the dialogue the community needs to have.”

But Bennett, chairman of the site-selection committee for Transitions, expressed concerns over certain aspects of that plan, including how the homeless would get transportation to a homeless facility that is not near other service providers in the downtown area.

“The idea of a retreat out in the country probably needs some work,” Bennett said.

But Runyan said now is the time to act.

“The business community wants resolve and they want council to move toward a goal,” he said. “You’re seeing frustration building. Enough talk. It’s time to act.”