Being Homeless in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina, Might Be Against the Law

Police officers could be assigned to patrol the city center and keep homeless people out.

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Photo Illustration by Mark Byrnes

UPDATE, Aug. 29: Since this piece was first reported, some members of the Columbia City Council now say that they did not vote to approve the entire "Emergency Homeless Response" plan, despite Councilman Cameron Runyan's statements to the media that they did. The whole thing is sorta up in the air until a planned Sept. 3 hearing, when the council hopes to clear up what, exactly, it did vote on.

After receiving a mountain of complaints from business owners in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, the Columbia City Council announced last week that it would do everything in its power to ban homeless people from entering the downtown area. 

In a document titled "Emergency Homeless Response," council members declared that officers from the Columbia Police Department will begin collecting homeless people who are found downtown and transporting them by shuttle to a temporary homeless shelter at the edge of the city. According to The State newspaper, homeless people who refuse to go to the shelter "could be arrested under a range of public nuisance laws that include loitering, public intoxication, public urination, aggressive panhandling or trespassing."

Once there, homeless people will be allowed to leave the shelter only in a shuttle headed away from the downtown area. An officer will also be posted at the intersection of Williams and Laurel streets, located between downtown and the shelter, to keep homeless people from entering downtown. The city will provide a hotline for downtown businesses to call when "a person in need is identified," so that police can pick them up. Once the emergency shelter is up and running, it will be the only place in Columbia where the homeless can be "publicly fed," and the only place where ex-prisoners can be "released" inside the city. 

There are a couple big problems with the plan, even beyond the possibility that it violates the constitutional rights of homeless people. The first is that the shelter is designed to house 240 people, but there are an estimated 1,500 homeless people in the Columbia area. The other problem? The emergency shelter is, as its name suggests, just a temporary situation. The Columbia City Council wants it closed by April 2014, and according to the plan, the "permanent response cannot be centered at emergency shelter site" — which is city-owned and located on a "commercially valuable property" — or anywhere near downtown.

Under the city council's plan, a cop stationed at the intersection of Williams and Laurel streets will prevent the homeless from venturing east into downtown Columbia. The emergency shelter is located west of that intersection near the water. Map courtesy of Stamen.com.

In other words, while the temporary shelter is far away from downtown, the permanent shelter needs to be even farther. Once the city shuts down the emergency shelter, it will "[p]repare emergency shelter parcel for sale for private development along Columbia Canal."

There's another big problem with the city council's temporary solution (aside from the whole second-class citizen treatment of the homeless) and that's the cost of running a 24/7 emergency shelter between now and April 2014. Doing so will cost about $1.7 million, but the city is only allocating $500,000 toward the program. Thankfully, "Christ Central Ministries is willing to work with the city, community, other providers and the organization’s 92 mission stations around the state of South Carolina to help the city move towards a solution to our problem."

While advocates for the homeless are contemplating filing suit against the city, such measures have succeeded in cities across the country. As ThinkProgress notes, Tampa, Miami, and Palo Alto have all succeeded in implementing policies or local legislation designed to expel homeless people from their city centers. That said, Columbia appears to be the first city to attempt rounding them up and penning them in like livestock. 

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