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Lexington County could ban loitering. Some in Red Bank say it’s about time

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File photo tdominick@thestate.com

Lexington County Council is considering a no-loitering ordinance for the county’s unincorporated areas in part to combat problems in the Red Bank area.

Chairwoman Debra Summers said the possibility has been discussed before, but loitering has become a more serious issue as the county grows.

At a Red Bank shopping complex off of S.C. 6 and Platt Springs Road, some homeless people regularly show up and wander around, employees of surrounding stores say.

Summers said the loitering has sparked complaints from shopping center customers who feel uncomfortable when they’re approached and asked for money.

Area employees say the problem gets worse at night.

The shopping center’s Walmart store is open 24 hours a day. It is full of entertaining knick-knacks and cooled by powerful air conditioning. It gets much of the late-night crowd.

Loitering also is a problem at the Shell gas station on South Lake Drive. It backs up to a wooded area that is well-known among locals as a “homeless camp.”

Ashley Dreher, a clerk at the station, said she tries to avoid working nights. She estimates 25 people live in the “camp” in the woods.

She said she suspects many of the homeless people who come into the store are on drugs.

One day, a young woman came into the store high, Dreher said, and threatened her. Another day, she said, she found a needle in the gas station toilet. Dreher regularly demands that a man she suspects is dealing drugs leave the gas station property, she said. Policing who is coming to the station and what state they are in has now become part of Dreher’s job.

Customers who used to leave their cars running while they ran inside the station to buy a pack of cigarettes now are “scared to” — if they haven’t stopped going to that gas station altogether, Dreher said.

People who work in the area say the problem has only gotten worse the more development comes into Red Bank.

“The area has really gone down. It’s grown up, but it’s gone down,” Dreher said.

Cody Kitchens has worked at a GameStop across the road from Walmart for about three years. He said he’s seen the issue escalate.

“The more stuff they build around, the more sketchy people” show up, said Kitchens, assistant manager at the store.

Though he hasn’t been threatened or had drugged up customers, he’s come across someone “strung out” picking through the store trash.

While clerks complained about loitering, several shoppers interviewed by The State say they haven’t been approached by panhandlers.

Amanda Brand, 34, lives in the area and said she shops at Walmart or the nearby Food Lion about once a week, and she can’t remember any panhandlers approaching her.

“I’ve never had a problem,” she said.

But Brand always shops “before dark.”

Summers, the county chairwoman, said the council had not discussed addiction as it relates to loitering in the area, but she knew about the “homeless camp” in the woods.

“I’ve never seen it myself … but I’ve heard that it is real,” she said.

Data from the State Law Enforcement Division indicate that Lexington County has been hit hard by methamphetamine. Between 2011 and 2018, police discovered 455 meth labs in the county, more than anywhere else in the state.

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In the first seven months of this year, police found nine labs. A number of these were labs where children were present, records show.

When it comes to issues of homelessness, Lexington County is “not as equipped yet” as other areas, like neighboring Richland County. Summers said that’s because Lexington is just now growing rapidly. From 2007 to 2017, the county population steadily increased by almost 50,000.

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The county helps fund the Transitions shelter in Columbia, but homeless shelters in Lexington County are scarce.

Lexington County Sheriff’s Department said it has received complaints from local businessowners and neighbors of the Red Bank shopping center, and it is looking into solutions to help those in the homeless encampment in the woods.

“We’ll continue to proactively patrol the locations as part of our community policing efforts,” Capt. Adam Myrick said. “In the long term, we’re also exploring ways we can assist the homeless population by linking them up with organizations that provide related services and assistance.”

The County Council has given initial approval to an anti-loitering ordinance. But the proposals lacks specifics now, including a definition of loitering and the penalties.

Summers said the council is seeking legal advice in order to make the new law fair to everyone, including the loiterers. She said the ordinance must be effective, but not too much of a burden on law enforcement officers, and not too harsh.

“Nobody wants to have people arrested. That’s not our goal at all,” she said.

The council would have to approve the ordinance two more times and hold a public hearing before the law is changed. Summers said they hope to craft a suitable ordinance by late November or December.

Some civil rights advocates argue ordinances such as anti-loitering laws aim to “criminalize” homelessness. Lexington County wants to avoid that.

“We want to be respectful of everyone … but also looking out for the average citizen,” Summers said.

It is natural to want to help people in need, but experts say giving cash to panhandlers may not be the best method. A better way to help is by donating to local charities designed to work with the homeless.

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Shelters in Lexington County

His House of Columbia

Temporary shelter for men 18 and older (must have valid picture ID)

764 Meeting St., West Columbia, SC 29169

803-791-0557

Samaritan’s Well

Homeless shelter for women; pregnant women in second or third trimester; women with children; boys up to age 13

129 Gibson St., Lexington, SC 29072

803-785-4357

Central Midlands Transitional Retreat

Transitional housing for United States veterans

201 Duffie Drive, Lexington, SC 29072

803-359-5018

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