Opinion

Moving benches to keep downtown homeless away is a dumb idea — but here are three smart ones

I admit it: I can be blunt.

And, yes, that can be awkward.

When I was a sports columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example, I was always amazed that people would actually get as angry as they would about my opinions.

It wasn’t unusual to have other Cleveland sports media members glare at me as they inhaled their free hot dogs and nachos in the press box.

It wasn’t unusual to have Cleveland athletes, coaches and team executives yell at me in hallways — or challenge me to fights in locker rooms.

It wasn’t unusual to have deranged Cleveland sports fanboys fill up my voicemail box with nasty messages just as fast as I could delete them all.

And Cleveland is my hometown!

People are supposed to like me there!

Given that history it probably isn’t the smartest thing for me to be a newbie in Columbia — a city that I’ve only lived in for a month yet have already grown to enjoy very much — and use a word like “dumb” to describe something involving the community.

But I can’t help it.

So here goes:

The city’s recent decision to remove three benches from a corner in the Vista — largely to keep the downtown homeless from being able to use them — was dumb.

Actually, let me expand on that:

On a “dumbosity” meter of “1” to “10,” the city’s decision to move the downtown benches sent the needle soaring to “12.” And, yes, I know that the benches were eventually relocated to another spot not far from their original location.

I don’t care.

It makes no difference.

What the city did was dumb because it symbolized how our society keeps coming up with new and demeaning ways to marginalize the homeless.

What the city did was dumb because it showed a lack of respect for the fact that you can’t push people out of common public spaces — which is what downtown areas are — just because others don’t like seeing them there.

And what the city did was dumb because instead of moving benches around in nonsensical fashion, it could be pursuing smarter ideas to address the issue of homeless people in downtown Columbia.

What are these smarter ideas?

Well, here are three of them:

Encourage the downtown business community to hire a roving social services outreach specialist to engage with the homeless in a face-to-face manner.

It’s not as though this is a radical idea — or an idea that lacks a track record for being effective.

In Jacksonville, for instance, the downtown businesses agreed to let Downtown Vision Inc., the nonprofit group that represents them, spend some money to hire a social services outreach specialist who has helped scores of homeless individuals — just by walking around and having one-on-one interactions with them.

Why can’t the city help Columbia’s downtown business community do the same thing — even if it means providing the seed money to help hire someone?

You don’t think that would be a better idea than dragging benches around?

Spend the money to expand the number of downtown day resource centers for the homeless.

It’s pretty ridiculous that one downtown facility — the Transitions Homeless Center on Main Street — is doing the bulk of the work when it comes to providing a daytime space for the homeless.

Transitions CEO Craig Currey says the shelter helped more than 3,700 adult visitors last year — and that the 2019 number could be higher.

“We accept any adult who’s homeless and wants to come in during the day,” Currey says.

“We’re all about helping as many people as we can.”

That’s great.

But why aren’t more downtown facilities doing the same thing?

You don’t think that would be a better idea than dragging benches around?

Throw some more lights up!

I can’t tell you how many times I drive or walk downtown and feel like I’m swimming inside a huge barrel of ink — that’s how crazy dark it is in some areas.

Seriously, would it really be too much for this city to throw some more lights up around downtown?

Would it really be that hard?

Would it really be that costly?

You don’t think having more well-lit areas would make a homeless person sitting on a downtown bench seem a little less threatening to other people (many of whom just feel uneasy — period — about the homeless)?

You don’t think that’s a better idea than dragging benches around?

Of course, it is.

Let’s be blunt — there’s that word again — about this:

Moving around some benches in downtown Columbia won’t improve the problem of homelessness in that area.

But moving away from dumb ideas like that just might.

Opinion Editor Roger Brown can be reached at (803) 771-8464 or rjbrown@thestate.com. You can also catch him on Twitter @RBrown_SCOpin.

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