So far, so good at winter shelter

Ernest Pryor became homeless three weeks ago, not because he lost his job or became disabled - he just lost his ride.

He was visiting Columbia with a friend. They had an argument, and Pryor got stranded.

"I punched him in the mouth, and he left me here," he said. "He was drunk."

Since then, Pryor has been one of the estimated 900 homeless people wandering the streets of Richland County and one of the 206 who have been filling the boxy wooden bunk beds in Columbia's Winter Homeless Shelter every night since it opened under new management Nov. 1.

Columbia taxpayers still own the shelter, located on Calhoun Street near the Columbia Canal and the city's water plant. But it is operated by The Cooperative Ministry in partnership with the USC School of Medicine. The partnership has opened the shelter up to The Cooperative Ministry's network of local churches, who provide volunteers and, in one case, boxes of popcorn.

David Kunz, The Cooperative Ministry's executive director, refers to the homeless not as clients, but as "guests" - as if they were in a hotel. Volunteers cut up turkey sandwiches and hand them out as snacks just before lights out at 11 p.m. During the day, the homeless leave their personal items, or at least whatever will fit in a black trash bag, on their beds as a placeholder.

It's a sign they'll be back.

They have been coming back since Nov. 1, with the shelter filled to capacity and staff members having to turn away up to up 20 people every night, Kunz said. Kunz said he just got permission to bump up capacity to 224 after some negotiations with the fire marshal.

The Cooperative Ministry was founded in 1982 by five churches. Its primary mission is to serve not the homeless, Kunz said, but the working poor - those who have jobs but struggle to survive.

"The lines between the working poor and homeless are somewhat blurred," Kunz said. "We are seeing about 300 more clients a month in emergency assistance alone at The Cooperative Ministry. And again, that's the working poor, those invisible people that are working, trying to make it, but they are one crisis away from being homeless or destitute."

City officials spent $1 million to build the shelter - which is actually two buildings - in 2007 after plans to put a permanent shelter on Hampton Street failed. At the time, city officials said the shelter would only be in use for two years. After that, the buildings would be used as storage space for city equipment and vehicles.

That helped ease fears from surrounding neighborhood leaders who worried that a homeless shelter would increase crime in their community.

The Cooperative Ministry's contract ensures the shelter will continue for the next three years, but so far people in the neighborhoods haven't complained, Kunz said. The Cooperative Ministry meets with the neighborhood associations weekly, Kunz said.

The change of management "has definitely improved communication," said Dan Doyle, project manager for CanalSide, a $200 million housing development less than a mile away. "It seems to be a lot more effective in how it's being operated."

Neighborhood leaders especially like the shelter's "no walk up" policy, meaning homeless people who show up unannounced will be turned away.

Instead, city officials pick up the homeless from three downtown locations and transport them to the shelter in 15-passenger vans.

"We have not had any concerns at this point," said Ellen Cooper, spokeswoman for the Downtown Neighborhood Coalition. "Things are going extremely well."

One pickup location is at Sumter and Laurel streets near the CMRTA bus station. Wednesday night, after temperatures had reached 70 degrees during the day, about 30 homeless people crowded under a street light waiting for a van to arrive.

When it did, the fight was on as homeless men pushed and shoved each other to get into the van. The reason, Pryor said, was because the first ones at the shelter got to control the TV.

"When you're homeless, you put down your self-respect, you put down your self-esteem," he said. "Truthfully, these guys are good guys. They all just want to get home and go to bed."