South Carolina City will Prohibit Homeless from Downtown

Tony Gosling tony at
Mon Sep 23 22:12:34 BST 2013

South Carolina City Takes Steps to Evict Homeless From Downtown
  Anne McQuary for The New York Times


Homeless people waiting for a meal and a place to 
stay at the Oliver Gospel Mission in Columbia, S.C.

By ALAN BLINDER  -  Published: August 25, 2013 

  COLUMBIA, S.C. — In South Carolina’s capital, 
officials declare that their tree-lined Main 
Street, clogged with shops, banks, restaurants 
and hotels, is evidence that a long-sought economic revival has arrived.
“What I see is a giant risk to business,” said 
Cameron Runyan, a member of the City Council, 
whose strategy gave the homeless three options: 
accept help at a shelter, go to jail or leave Columbia.
  But mere blocks north, a dozen or so of the 
county’s approximately 1,500 homeless people sit 
on a short wall near an empty parking lot, 
waiting for private shelters to open. They 
sporadically shout curses at passers-by while 
they smoke cigarettes and endure the summer humidity.
  With business owners sounding increasingly 
worried about the threat they believe the 
homeless pose to Columbia’s economic surge, the 
City Council approved a plan this month that will 
essentially evict them from downtown streets.
  The unanimous vote epitomized how Columbia’s 
dueling realities — a rush of self-confidence 
among political and business leaders and 
continuing poverty for others — have become driving forces of public policy.
  Among metropolitan areas in the South, the 
nation’s fastest-growing region, Columbia is late to a boom period.
  New Orleans rebounded after Hurricane Katrina 
and became a hub for start-up companies. Raleigh, 
N.C., has logged significant job gains. 
Greenville, S.C., transformed its downtown, 
earning the admiration of Columbia. And in 
Nashville, an investment company recently 
introduced an exchange-traded fund exclusively featuring area businesses.
  In Columbia, which has branded itself “the new 
Southern hot spot,” residents say the city’s time has come.
  They point to plans for the 181-acre campus 
that once housed the state’s mental hospital and 
will, over the next two decades, become a 
mixed-use development with an annual economic 
impact of more than $1 billion. Speculation is 
rampant that a minor-league baseball team will 
relocate to Columbia. Less flashy projects also 
abound, including the conversion of a vacant 
office building into housing for University of 
South Carolina students, some of the more than 
780,000 people who live in the metropolitan area.
  But business owners are warning that rising 
homelessness in Richland County — up 43 percent 
in two years, according to the South Carolina 
Coalition for the Homeless, an increase many 
blame on an absence of affordable housing options 
and a sluggish national economy — is imperiling the area’s prospects.
  “People are afraid to get out of their cars 
when they see a homeless person,” said Richard 
Balser, who owns a luggage store downtown. “They 
haven’t been a problem. They just scare people.”
  Others offered more dire assessments. One 
executive cautioned the City Council in an e-mail 
that “our staff members and our guests no longer 
feel safe” and that it is “virtually impossible 
for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model.”
  Comments like those have galvanized city 
officials, whose controversial plan was widely supported by business leaders.
  “If we don’t take care of this big piece of our 
community and our society, it will erode the 
entire foundation of what we’re trying to build 
in this city,” said Councilman Cameron Runyan, 
who wrote the proposal and has suggested moving 
Columbia’s homeless shelter as far as 15 miles 
from downtown. “What I see is a giant risk to business.”
  Mr. Runyan has also cited a report from the 
police that showed increases in crime last year 
among the homeless, including assault and trespassing.
  City officials have clashed about what 
precisely the Council approved during a marathon 
meeting, but Mr. Runyan said the intent of his 
strategy was to increase enforcement of existing 
vagrancy laws and offer the homeless three 
options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail or leave Columbia.
  Although those options were not detailed in Mr. 
Runyan’s emergency proposal, he said they were 
“implicit.” They are included in his permanent 
plan, which the Council will consider later.
  Opponents of the emergency plan, which will 
keep the city’s 240-bed shelter open two months 
longer than the previous November-to-March 
schedule, have said it would do little more than degrade Columbia’s neediest.
  “You’ve got to get to the root of the problem: 
why we’re homeless,” said Jaja Akair, a homeless 
man who spoke during a City Council session that 
stretched past 3 a.m. “You can’t just knock us to 
the side like we’re a piece of meat or a piece of paper.”
  Turning to executives in the audience, Mr. 
Akair said: “Try giving us a shot. I guarantee 
you some of us would run your business better than you do.”
  Other critics have warned that they are 
considering court challenges to the plan, which will take effect in September.
  This summer, cities like Tampa, Fla., and 
Portland, Ore., have pursued aggressive policies 
against the homeless. But Maria Foscarinis, the 
executive director of the National Law Center on 
Homelessness and Poverty, characterized 
Columbia’s plan in an e-mail as “an extreme, highly disturbing example.”
  Although Ms. Foscarinis’s group found in 2011 
that cities were increasingly enacting 
prohibitions against activities like panhandling 
and loitering, researchers have questioned the efficacy of such tactics.
  “These kinds of proposals are happening more 
and more around the country,” said Robert 
Adelman, a sociologist at the University at 
Buffalo. “But to me, all of these ordinances and 
policies just redistribute homeless persons. They 
don’t solve the problem of homelessness. You 
can’t jail people out of homelessness.”
  Columbia’s efforts to support the wishes of 
local businesses have not been limited to the 
homeless initiatives. City leaders are also 
asking the courts to stop plans for a federal 
halfway house that would be near the widely 
anticipated mixed-use development on Bull Street, 
a project led by the same man credited with 
revitalizing Greenville’s downtown.
  “We’ve got to make sure that every single thing 
we do focuses on continuing to attract 
advancement,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “Nothing can be a distraction.”
  But Lori Brown, who owns a fabric store on Main 
Street, wondered if the city had misplaced its 
efforts. “People complain more about parking,” Ms. Brown said. 
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