Columbia grapples with its homeless population
COLUMBIA — While leaders have backed away from a controversial plan to lock up Columbia’s homeless or ship them out of town, they still are figuring out how to solve a problem many agree is getting worse.
Volunteers sought to count the number of homeless in all of South Carolina’s 46 counties on Jan. 24. The tally includes those in emergency shelters, transitional housing and without shelter. While experts caution about relying too much on the results, the numbers show Columbia with the most homeless people in the state.
County Total Homeless
1. Richland 1,518
2. Greenville 896
3. Horry 839
4. Charleston 403
5. Spartanburg 341
6. Greenwood 238
7. Florence 228
8. Beaufort 136
9. Anderson 131
10. Lexington 121
South Carolina 6,032
S.C. Coalition for the Homeless
The greatest concentration of the city’s homeless may be seen several blocks north of the state Capitol, where a new $12 million facility has opened to provide shelter and other programs to help the homeless.
The complaints don’t center around what happens inside the large nonprofit complex known as Transitions at Calhoun and Main streets.
Instead, they revolve around what is happening on the surrounding downtown blocks. Some residents and businesses say they’re on edge, and others wonder if the city’s revitalization might be blocked from moving their way.
By one count earlier this year, Richland County has by far the most homeless of any county in South Carolina — perhaps as much as a quarter of the state’s homeless population.
And dealing with them all remains a work in progress.
‘Like the walking dead’
Jimmy Clark, who runs his Clark’s Auto Clinic, said his shop sits at “Ground Zero” of the city’s homeless scene, “and it’s gotten worse in the last five years.”
‘Like the walking dead’
His shop window has been broken twice, though no one could enter because of the burglar bars inside. His other complaints are more of the nuisance variety — people trespassing across his lot and the occasional petty theft. Just a few days ago, he saw a police officer wrestle a naked, intoxicated man to the ground.
“I used to keep the door open all the time,” he said. “No more.”
Susan Sorg, a Blythewood resident who works in the Bank of America tower just a block from Transitions, said she sees a lot of homeless but does not feel threatened by them.
She said she has called police about them a few times, such as when she saw someone throwing beer cans in a park’s bushes. “There once was someone lying beside a Dumpster, and I didn’t know if they were dead or passed out. I did call the police about that, too,” she said.
Dorothy Hart, who lives near Clark’s, said she is glad she is moving away soon. “I get home at 11:30 at night, and they’re all on the corner,” she said. “It’s like the walking dead.”
Clark and others said the homeless don’t seem to commit serious crimes, but they can provide cover for those who do. Also, they bring everyday annoyances, such as obscene gestures, trespassing and public urination.
“A lot of customers I have don’t work on these few city blocks,” Clark said. “They’re not accustomed to seeing it every day. When it’s in your face, it’s quite different.”
‘Bucket keeps filling’
Craig Currey is chief executive officer of Transitions, a nonprofit agency with a three-story brick complex that offers the homeless shelter, food, medical attention and counseling to help them get off the streets for good.
‘Bucket keeps filling’
It opened in 2011, and Currey said it already has put 375 people into permanent housing and helped 1,162 others find a better living situation than the city’s streets. Transitions has about 260 beds to help some in the short-term, to offer others transitional housing — even 14 beds for those recovering from an illness or injury. It serves more than 600 meals a day and requires those enrolled to take between two and eight hours of personal development, such as attending an Alcoholics Anonymous class, each week.
Anita Floyd is chair of South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless, a statewide network of advocates, service providers and others.
She said she understands some people in Columbia are impatient to find a solution, but she noted it took a while to get Transitions up and running.
“It’s not that it’s not working. It’s just that the bucket keeps filling up faster than we can get through it at this point,” she said.
Floyd said it’s tough to know if Columbia has more homeless than other metro areas in South Carolina, but she said the capital city does seem more concerned that the homeless situation may inhibit the redevelopment of its downtown.
Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan called the homeless situation “very, very impactful on the business district.”
Columbia’s debate about its homeless made national news recently when Runyan proposed a plan that would require homeless to move along, go to a treatment center outside the city or go to jail.
The resulting outcry led to a perception that the city didn’t care about the least of its residents — a perception some felt was unfair.
“A lot of the verbage got out of the box, with talk about jail,” Currey said. “The city really does care, that’s the sad thing. It helped fund Transitions two years ago as part of the solution, but we can’t solve all of the homeless problem.”
Following the outcry, City Council backed off that and instead agreed to open a “winter shelter,” a temporary homeless facility that will open every day, all day for the next seven months, then close at the end of that period. Runyan said he hopes the city will have a more permanent solution by then.
Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said her group worked behind the scenes to confirm that some of the city’s proposals not only would burden the homeless but also would violate their rights.
But she said the city’s recent moves will lead to better discussions about the issue’s complexity, which touches on affordable housing, living wage jobs, ending hunger, supporting veterans, access to healthcare, immigrants rights, and the collateral consequences of an arrest or conviction.
“We believe this is the start of a plan to help eradicate poverty and homelessness in Columbia,” she said in a message to supporters. “A plan not to hide homelessness, but to eradicate it.”
Runyan said the city must maintain “a healthy tension” between caring for the homeless and holding them accountable.
“What we’re talking about providing is being our brother’s keeper. Love, without accountability, is not love at all,” he said. “Do I have regrets? I regret that we can’t have a discussion about this without screaming at each other, which is what happened. But I’m glad we’re having the discussion. People are paying attention.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.