I want to express my appreciation to United Way of the Midlands and its partners, Transitions and the Salvation Army, for getting the winter shelter opened for this cold weather. This was no easy task, given that the United Way had only been awarded the contract to coordinate homeless services in October, with the shelter contract an additional — and mammoth — responsibility.
It was during a work session on Oct. 7 that the Columbia City Council reversed its earlier decision to permanently close the winter shelter. While some city officials still hold to their stance that it is not the role of the city to house the homeless, most council members chose the more humane path. They should be commended for this.
Not all council members agreed with the plan, however. Councilman Cameron Runyan took an oppositional stance throughout the meeting. He began by asking why the United Way hadn’t included “sex offenders” and “the mentally ill” in its homeless services proposal, a question that reflected stigma against homeless citizens, most of whom are neither offenders nor struggling with mental illnesses.
Runyan then asked repeatedly if the United Way gave money to churches. The United Way partners with churches in many ways, but it is not a religious organization. Runyan specifically asked if it gave money to his church, which he referred to as “one of the largest in Columbia.”
Was Mr. Runyan making the point that churches have a role to play in serving homeless citizens? Though not a single religious organization responded to the request for proposals, the United Way likely will welcome any and all partners to serve the homeless. The truth, I suspect, is that Mr. Runyan used political posturing to derail meaningful discussion about this critical issue. While this is not an uncommon tactic among elected officials, his comments served to frustrate United Way staff and the large group of attendees who’d given their time and energy to advocate for the homeless.
Fortunately, Mr. Runyan didn’t have his way. It took hard work and complex interagency coordination, but on Nov. 1, when Columbia temperatures first fell below freezing, our homeless citizens had a warm place to sleep.
S.C. Executive Director, National
Association of Social Workers