City must support transition center for homeless

WITH THE MIDLANDS Housing Alliance's homeless transition center clearly having become the best hope for a comprehensive approach to homelessness in the Midlands, Columbia City Council should provide necessary support to help make it work.

While city officials haven't refused to help, their silence has spoken volumes. Over the years, City Council, while it has supported various homeless efforts, has failed to back a community-wide approach to this issue. Still, it's difficult to believe the city would refuse to support the Housing Alliance. That group raised $11.6 million to build the center on its own, but it needs about $2 million annually for operations.

For a while, there was a concern that we would have competing homeless shelters across the street from one another on Main Street. Neighbors were upset enough that one shelter might be near them; the idea of a second one only fanned the flames and put more pressure on City Council to withhold its support. But the Rev. Jimmy Jones' Christ Central Ministries wisely dropped its plans for a center after the alliance announced it would soon close on the Salvation Army site and could begin demolition work in October.

The Housing Alliance, a coalition of business leaders, churches and service providers, expects the transition center to open in the first quarter of 2011. The 214-bed, state-of-the-art facility will be designed to help homeless individuals become productive citizens.

We commend the Midlands Housing Alliance for bringing together a broad array of groups and individuals to focus on this important issue. How a community treats its homeless says a lot about its character.

The alliance is committed to moving forward despite the lack of a similar commitment from Columbia. But the city is a natural ally since many of the homeless - although from across the region - gather in the city center, creating service needs and security issues.

The idea isn't for financially struggling Columbia to foot the entire bill to operate the transition center. Much of the funding, at least initially, will come from business, church, charitable and health organizations. But it's critical that Columbia and Richland County help provide long-term funding. If they don't, forget about other governments, such as West Columbia, Cayce or Lexington County, ever getting involved. Lexington County, although hesitant, seemed poised to join an earlier community-wide effort until Columbia scuttled it.

To its credit, Richland contributed $100,000 toward the project. That's far too little, but the fact that the county gave anything suggests it's open to helping.

There's going to be sufficient opportunity for Columbia to help as well. The city recently turned to USC to oversee its winter shelter near the river. USC plans to operate the shelter for three years, then put it in the hands of the Housing Alliance. That would give the city an opportunity to establish a relationship with the group - and its downtown center. Aside from contributing money, city officials can help the alliance build better rapport with neighbors antsy about the center.

The city, along with providers, churches, businesses and others, has struggled for years to address homelessness. The Housing Alliance provides a reasonable and workable response to the challenge. It deserves the support of the entire community.