The City of Columbia is cracking down on large groups of people gathering in city parks without a permit — an effort, in part, to control the feeding of homeless people.
Beginning Feb. 15, the city will begin enforcing its existing park permit ordinance. Any group of 25 or more people that holds an event or activity at a city park will need to file an application for a permit at least 15 days in advance. Fees for permits vary according to the park, the nature of the activity and the group hosting it.
The policy move has been in the works since last fall, when Columbia City Council adopted a set of measures to deal with homelessness. Among them: trying to coordinate the many groups who feed the homeless across the city, moving most meals to the city’s Calhoun Street shelter and thereby reducing homeless people’s daily migrations around the city.
Among the groups that feed the homeless in city parks, the most well known is probably Food Not Bombs. The Columbia chapter has been meeting every Sunday at Finlay Park for 12 years to share food.
Applying for a permit isn’t a problem, says Judith Turnipseed, who helps organize Food Not Bombs. The problem is the fees. While there are reduced fees for nonprofits, Food Not Bombs doesn’t actually fall in that category.
“We have no formal organization,” she says. “We don’t have a 501(c)(3). We’re just a group of people who come to the park and bring food and share it with anyone who comes. That includes people who are homeless, [and] people who have a home but are hungry. It’s a people’s picnic.”
According to her reading of the fee ordinance, Food Not Bombs would have to pay at least $120 per week, Turnipseed says. They’ve been negotiating with city staff to try to keep the fees down, she says — and the group’s track record of cleaning up after themselves should help. But the ordinance isn’t right, she says.
“We’re still talking to them and we’re still talking to each other. We haven’t come to a decision about what we’re going to do yet. … People say ‘Just move,’ but that’s kind of folding your tent and running,” she says.
Legal action is a possibility, says Tom Turnipseed, Judith’s husband.
“We’re the kind of folks who want to get along and work things out and negotiate, [but] it might have to come to going to court,” Tom Turnipseed says.
Many of these tensions date to 2013, when Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan rolled out a plan to address homelessness that included, among other ideas, an out-of-town homeless rehabilitation center called The Retreat and strict enforcement of city loitering laws and other ordinances. The Turnipseeds and other citizens protested the plans, writing letters, marching down Main Street and wearing patches with an “H” on them. The city never adopted all Runyan’s proposals, but Council did agree on a series of steps to address homelessness.
The city’s crackdown on park activities was delayed for several months while Christ Central Ministries, which the city has contracted to run its emergency shelter, got a feeding program up and running at the shelter on Calhoun Street.
Rev. Jimmy Jones, who runs Christ Central Ministries, says 71 churches and businesses have chipped in to help feed the homeless so far since the shelter opened for the season in September.
But not everyone’s been able to participate.
Judith Turnipseed says she called Jones last fall to ask what night of the week Food Not Bombs could feed people at the shelter, as they’d done in years past in addition to their Sunday park feedings.
“He said ‘We don’t need you and we don’t want you,’” Turnipseed says.
Jones confirms that account to Free Times. He says the Turnipseeds’ opposition to Runyan’s homeless proposals was the reason he didn’t want them at the shelter. He told them to go volunteer at Transitions or some other homeless service provider.
“Judy and Tom took a very strong opposition to Christ Central Ministries doing anything,” Jones says. “They could find nothing but fault in us doing anything. …
There’s no malice for Tom and Judy. I just didn’t think it’d be the best thing for them to go down [to the shelter].”
He asked one other group besides the Turnipseeds not to help out at the Calhoun Street shelter.
“The whole reason is if you’re going to stir up the homeless, don’t come down here,” Jones says.
Meanwhile, city staffers have been posting signs in parks to alert people to the coming policy change.
While the homeless issue was the catalyst for the city beginning to enforce the ordinance, there is actually a broader issue that needs addressing, says Jeff Caton, director of parks and recreation for the city.
“We do have groups that come to our facilities without notice, bring large groups,” Caton says. When that happens, he says, sometimes there aren’t enough trash cans for the group, or the bathrooms aren’t ready, and it can hurt everyone’s park experience.
The park ordinance allows the city to deny permits to groups for a variety of reasons, including if the activity “will unreasonably interfere with or detract from the enjoyment of the areas of the park or recreational facility for other members of the public.”
But Caton says he hopes he won’t have to deny anyone a permit.
“We’re hopeful that everyone complies and everyone does their part to take care of the property,” he says. “We hope everything runs smoothly.”
Still, this is new territory for his staff, he admits: They’re used to providing services, not enforcing city laws.
“That’s kind of a new thing for us, because we don’t tend to be in the enforcement arena,” he says.
Relaxation, Pain Management, and Stress Relief
Licensed massage therapist Allison Morris of AMR Massage offers 50% off your first session and every 5th session free of charge. Click here for location, hours, and more information.
Brew Pub Site Available
3520 Augusta Road, West Columbia. Click for more information.
Happy Hour and Sushi Specials All Week
Red Bowl in Lexington now has great early bird and late night sushi specials 7 days a week, as well as 99-cent kids meals on Saturdays! Click here for special information and hours.
Make Your Own Beer and Wine!
Come get started on your “liquid hobby” and help us celebrate our 46th year in the Columbia area. Bet Mar Liquid Hobby Shop: 736 St. Andrews Road.
Accepting Applications for Shakespeare’s Kidz!
Students ages 10-16 are invited to join South Carolina Shakespeare’s new youth company, with classes running September 20th-December 11th followed by a final performance. Contact Katie Mixon with questions about scholarships and applications: PKatieMixon@gmail.com.
SEARCH FREE TIMES
Free Times is looking for a highly organized, detail-oriented self-starter to assist in gathering material from advertisers, coordinating between the sales and production departments, and handling routine clerical tasks. Must be proficient on a Mac, able to conduct business via phone, email, text, Dropbox, social media platforms and face to face while under deadline in a fast-paced, sometimes distracting work environment. The position requires the ability to multitask, excellent oral and written communication skills, and solid experience in quickly learning new computer programs. This is a full time position with benefits. Send a cover letter, resume and salary expectation to email@example.com.
U.S. Security Associates
Now hiring immediately for armed and unarmed security officers. WE TRAIN YOU! Columbia & surrounding areas. ussecurityassociates.com
Wing Zone is now hiring for experienced delivery drivers, cooks & cashiers. Apply in person @ 132 Assembly St. or call 803-933-9464.
Real Estate Spotlight
Mungo Homes. Celebrating 60 years of our family building for your family. mungo.com