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Columbia Housing hires private security to encourage social distancing during COVID-19

Ivory Mathews

Columbia Housing interim executive director Ivory Mathews.

Leaders at Columbia’s public housing authority have gone to great lengths to stress to residents the need for social distancing as the coronavirus pandemic has gripped the nation and South Carolina.

But, after continuing to see large gatherings at its properties, the agency is now taking the next step.

Columbia Housing has now hired a private security firm to help encourage social distancing and break up gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Columbia Housing interim executive director Ivory Mathews, the agency has hired Brown Protective Services for the job. The housing authority is paying the private firm $720 per week for the work.

Mathews tells Free Times the housing authority has been monitoring public health and social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. She also has taken note of various measures taken by Gov. Henry McMaster, including his “home or work” order and his order that groups larger than three should not gather in public.

She says the housing authority also has kept an eye on whether its residents have been adhering to social distancing.

“It’s difficult,” Mathews says. “And we aren’t just seeing it in our own communities that the housing authority oversees. We see it everywhere. We are just not seeing compliance with social distancing recommendations.”

The housing director explains that she was concerned by some of the gatherings that have been seen at Columbia Housing properties in recent weeks, including cookouts with a large number of people, and even a birthday party with an inflatable “bouncy house” for kids.

“As we look at what was going on in terms of people’s response to social distancing, we felt like, even through our continued communications about social distancing, about making sure there are no crowds gathering, making sure people are staying six feet away from each other, all of those things, we realized that, in some of the communities we manage, the message was just not getting through,” Mathews says.

So now private security guards are being enlisted to break up any such gatherings and to encourage social distancing among Columbia Housing residents.

“I want our families to know that this is coming from a place of sincerity about making sure they are as safe as possible and making sure they stay as healthy as possible,” Mathews says.

The housing authority director says that the private security officers will be asking large groups to disperse, and reminding them of social distancing guidelines and that state and local governments have been imploring people to stay at home unless they are going to work or to get essential services. Mathews says the private security guards would not issue tickets or make arrests.

While he has recently reopened the state’s beaches and a host of retail businesses, McMaster’s “home or work” order remains in place and the state has continued to tell people to stay home. The City of Columbia also continues to stress social distancing and has a nightly 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

A considerable portion of Columbia Housing’s residents are African American. As noted in statistics from state health officials and in a recent cover story in Free Times, the African American community has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 in Columbia. Data from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control show that three local zip codes — 29203, 29223 and 29229, all of which have majority black populations — have been hot spots for the virus.

Mathews says those facts weighed in her mind in making the decision to hire the private firm to help encourage social distancing.

“I know the population of families we serve and I look at those zip codes where the numbers are increasing and increasing,” Mathews says. “A lot of our communities we manage, we have properties in those zip codes.”

Columbia Housing — formerly long known as the Columbia Housing Authority — provides public housing for 1,600 families in the Columbia area, and it provides rental assistance vouchers to another 4,000 families.

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