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As Main Street’s popularity grows, so do disturbing encounters with homeless

Columbia's thriving Main Street shares space with homeless population

Columbia Master Patrol Officer Chris Bolling knows the homeless population and enforces laws to keep the growing business and social district safe for everyone.
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Columbia Master Patrol Officer Chris Bolling knows the homeless population and enforces laws to keep the growing business and social district safe for everyone.

A byproduct of the crush of more people coming to Main Street is more and more aggressive clashes with homeless people, police say.

Despite the best efforts of Columbia leaders, officers who patrol the popular entertainment district know the homeless increasingly are approaching folks who work, live on or visit Main Street throughout the day and into the night.

The nomadic population sweeps across the city center starting at sunup, following the free services from caregivers, meals from charities and the chance to panhandle.

“It’s kind of a migration,” said police officer Chris Bolling, who has patrolled the Main Street corridor for two years.

“I’ve had some aggression come toward me,” said James Wallace, 48, who has lived on Main Street for three years.

Overall, Wallace said his frequent encounters have been calm. “A lot of folks see them as a problem, especially with a lot of businesses popping up. I have a tendency to be open to strangers, especially those who are in economic disparity. I will engage them in conversation and in other ways other than (giving them) money.”

Kerrin Pryor is a software consultant who lives in Tennessee but has been working in Columbia for a client for more than 18 months.

“I have been approached by several,” Pryor said. “I’m conscious of them. I just cross the street to avoid them. I’m a woman here by myself.”

She has not had a bad encounter with a homeless person. But their presence affects how far she goes on Main – she limits herself to no farther north than the 1600 block.

The popularity of the city center has attracted some 4,000 more residents downtown in recent years, police chief Skip Holbrook said. The homeless have long lived there. The mix of the two means police see not only more contacts as the homeless seek food or money, but more intense confrontations, the chief said.

“The (caregivers) who deal with the homeless population will tell you that statistics show it’s down,” the chief said of the number of homeles people. “But they’re more aggressive and maybe (there is) more mental illness.”

Through July, almost 380 homeless people had been arrested or ticketed in the immediate area around Main Street, police statistics show.

Officers have had scrapes and bruises from struggles with the most belligerent, though no officer has been hurt seriously, police said.

Homeless adults have become such a nuisance along the thriving entertainment and retail corridor that police have started “Operation Homeless Alley” to track arrests and tickets. The term “Homeless Alley” was borrowed from a name coined by businesses for an alleyway that connects The Hub student apartment complex, the Marriott hotel and adjoining properties, police said.

Vance McRae, 53, who has had no permanent place to live for some seven months, is an example of the appeal of the capital city’s downtown.

“They feed the homeless pretty good around here,” McRae said after he was roused by Bolling from his sleeping bag on a pleasant night in mid-July. Homeless people can eat as often as 11 times a day downtown if they know where to go, Bolling said, citing a list of churches and other charitable groups.

Bolling’s boss, Capt. Jimmy Auld, said officers can’t keep up with feeding locations. “People pull up in cars and hand out food.” That creates litter and turns property into toilets, Auld said.

“Sometimes being helpful is not being helpful. It’s when and where,” the captain said of distributing meals.

One newcomer to Columbia’s homeless population told Bolling that a hospital in Aiken put him on a bus to the Transitions homeless service center at Main and Elmwood Avenue.

Bolling has come to know many of downtown’s wandering residents by name. He knows their stories, and all are sad. He knows their needs and their bad habits.

As Bolling walked Main Street that night last month, homeless adults greeted him cheerfully.

Jed Gibbs and Ella Mae Williams asked the officer to use their smartphone to take a photo of them arm-in-arm on the sidewalk of the 1600 block between Taylor and Blanding. That block tends to attract many homeless because it’s shaded as the sun sets, has a courtyard with tables and chairs as well as an alleyway that doubles as a bathroom, Bolling said.

The tables and chairs had been removed by the end of the month, but homeless people continue to congregate there.

Bolling looked for one of Columbia’s best know homeless men: Charlie Chaplin. Yes, that’s his name. Chaplin has drunk so much Listerine that his mind is mush, the officer said. Talk on the street is that Chaplin at the moment is living in Sumter. He’ll be back, Bolling said.

Elvis Myers is talkative, but the sentences often meander along with his disjointed thoughts.

Donnie, whose last name Bolling can’t recall, has a penchant for drinking hand sanitizer he steals from hospitals.

The officer knows the parking garages, alleyways and porches where the homeless sleep, soil the property or wash themselves with hoses left outdoors.

Donnie is so accustomed to sleeping at Finlay Park that he leaves his guitar and his few prized possessions unguarded at night under his favorite sprawling tree.

Willie Hampton, 33, shows a reporter the prosthetic leg he said was the result of an infection in 2009. “I’m a rover,” said Hampton, a Columbia native, explaining he lives off disability payments. “I’ve been on and off the street because of a family situation.”

Hampton knows police call codes because he graduated from the police department’s citizen training class, the officer said. Hampton once phoned in from a bar a 10-78, which means an officer needs help, Bolling said.

When police arrived, they learned Hampton called because he was about to be beaten up.

“Homeless people are very smart about getting by,” Bolling said. “I guess they have to be.”

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