This Just In

Council Tries Again on Homeless Issue

A/C and Meals at Shelter Are Sticking Points
By Eva Moore
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 |
City Council members Cameron Runyan, Leona Plaugh and Sam Davis. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

At a somber Tuesday night meeting, Columbia City Council voted to open the city’s emergency winter shelter early, and tried to undo some of the damage to the city’s reputation when it comes to caring for the homeless.

The message throughout the night: Homelessness doesn’t have just one solution.

In a rare move, Council voted unanimously to rescind its Aug. 13 vote on a plan to deal with the homeless. That controversial vote came after 2 a.m., and council members have disagreed ever since on what exactly they adopted. Fueled in part by a pair of PowerPoint presentations created by Councilman Cameron Runyan laying out strict plans for cracking down on the homeless, news outlets across the country reported that Columbia had criminalized homelessness. (It hadn’t.)

Runyan said little during the Sept. 3 meeting. He did apologize for having brought up “the issue of forced confinement” of homeless people.

“I will take responsibility for that getting into the public discourse,” he said. “That is not the desire. … We are not going to forcibly confine anyone.”

Opening the shelter early, around Sept. 24, is supposed to help solve what many feel has been an increase in visible homelessness in Columbia.

Christ Central Ministries will operate the winter shelter for the second year in a row. Though Council’s relationship with Rev. Jimmy Jones is testy — and that testiness was on display as they quizzed him about details of the shelter’s operation — Jones has agreed to cover any costs above the $500,000 Columbia will pay toward running the shelter.

It’s unclear whether the shelter will have air conditioning. Installing units would be expensive — $70,000 — and would take six weeks; by then, the weather might have cooled for the year, said city staff. But the city wouldn’t house anyone in “inhumane conditions,” said City Manager Teresa Wilson.

Fans could cool the building by 10 or 15 degrees, Jones said. And given the heat outside, if those on the streets were given the chance to come inside, with or without A/C, “they would be thankful,” he said.

That drew the first of many jeers from people in the large crowd assembled for the meeting. Mayor Steve Benjamin asked people to be quiet.

Another sticking point for the winter shelter: Jones — and Runyan — have proposed that homeless people’s food stamps, Social Security checks and other benefits be used to help cover the cost of their care. But Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine says the idea gives her “heartburn” — she’s not clear it’s legal. Council did not adopt a policy on that idea Sept. 3.

Many details of the shelter’s operation are still to be worked out; Jones said he hasn’t yet seen a contract. For example, there’s no kitchen at the shelter, and no plans yet for how food will be provided there.

But council members and staff were clear: Nobody will be forced to go there.

“I’ve found out that homeless people have a much better news system than I do,” Jones said. “Once you let them know the choices that are out there for them, they make their own choices.”

Vans will drive a fixed route through downtown to pick up and drop off people who want to use the shelter. No walk-ups will be allowed in.

The goal will be for people to spend no more than seven days at the emergency shelter before moving to another program that addresses their specific needs — mental health, substance abuse, transitional housing, etc.

Council also adopted several other measures to address homelessness, voting unanimously on a lengthy motion by Benjamin. (See the motion at the end of this post.)

Among the plans are some recommended by a Homeless Advisory Committee appointed by the previous city manager: creating public bathrooms downtown; putting trash cans along Calhoun Street; educating people about the city’s loitering and panhandling laws; and putting up more No Loitering and No Panhandling signs.

Benjamin tried to include a measure to ban or reduce the sale of single-serving alcoholic beverages in the downtown area. But after a stern look from the city attorney and a warning that they’d have to discuss such a measure in closed executive session, Benjamin dropped that idea.

As for a long-term solution to homelessness in Columbia, Council agreed to adopt the six broad goals laid out in Runyan’s Columbia Cares plan, but didn’t take up any of the specific measures that have raised alarm, like an out-of-town homeless treatment center called The Retreat to which people could be sent as an alternative to jail.

Councilman Moe Baddourah made sure of that before the vote.

“I just want to make sure we’re clear that the six goals part of the solution, it would not be a Retreat,” he said. “It would not [be] like a Hotel California — you can check in, you can’t check out?”

Right, said Council members. No Retreat.

Council also heard from Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago, who said his plan for downtown security is simply to keep doing what he’s been doing. Over the past two months, Santiago says, he’s assigned more foot patrols downtown, with around 11 or 12 officers patrolling the area at any given time.

He acknowledged that residents and business owners have asked for cops to be positioned in particular spots — near the exit to the winter shelter, for example, or on Calhoun Street. However, he says the department’s predictive policing software is better at determining where cops can be most effective.

“Less will be more,” Santiago said. “We want to make sure that we are consistently patrolling the area around instead of just being in one location.”

Santiago also praised the city’s security cameras, saying they’ve helped solve crimes. The department has an 85 percent clearance rate, he boasted.

Council will vote on a final contract with Christ Central Ministries at its next meting, Sept. 17.

Council unanimously adopted this motion by Mayor Steve Benjamin:

That City Council, in its efforts to address homelessness, poverty and despair in our city, approve opening the Emergency Homeless Shelter beginning September 24, 2013 through April 15, 2014 or for a total of seven months from the beginning date. The Emergency Homeless Shelter will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during this seven month period.

That City Council provide funding in the same amount as last year’s contract with Christ Central Ministries to provide all operational services at the Emergency Homeless Shelter.

That as part of the service for the Emergency Homeless Shelter that Christ Central Ministries will provide for the operation of vans and buses to transport residents of the shelter to and from external service providers, services, work and downtown as requested.

That Christ Central Ministries strive to move clients out of the Emergency Homeless Shelter and into participating service provider’s programs within seven (7) days of intake at the Emergency Shelter.

That the City of Columbia, Christ Central Ministries and service providers recognize that meeting the challenge of homelessness and poverty requires a community response and that this is a “we” challenge, not a “them” challenge and never an effort to deprive any individuals of civil liberties or to criminalize poverty

That the City of Columbia encourage participation by nonprofit, faith based organizations and others that provide meals and services to the homeless in Columbia to participate in coordination of services, including providing meals and services for residents at the Emergency Homeless Shelter.

That Christ Central Ministries and the City of Columbia will deliver to City Council detailed monthly financials and quantitative and qualitative measurements regarding the Emergency Shelter operation after the mid-point and ending point of the program.

That the city manager develop a budget recommendation and implementation plan to retain the current level of community foot patrol of police in the downtown area of Columbia. In addition these resources should include training of CPD officers to identify when individuals are in crisis and would require medical assistance for both healthcare and mental health problems. Both items should be presented to City Council at its next meeting.

That Columbia City Council adopt the six homeless response goals presented to this body by the people of Columbia. Namely to:
Coordinate the response to poverty
Bring humanity to the response to poverty
Leverage the power of the community in responding to poverty
Institutionalize accountability for providers
Meet the unique needs of the individual in need
Address downtown impacts.

That the City of Columbia receive proposals to address the long-term response to homeless poverty through 02 January 2014. To earn a slot for participation, each must engage in:
Orientation Session – Broad brush explanation of the challenge and goals
Planning Session(s) – Participatory dialogue a couple of weeks following initial orientation.

To adopt several of the immediately actionable items of the Homeless Advisory Committee including
Developing a “Homeless Central” website within the City of Columbia webpages providing comprehensive and current information about service providers, their offerings and contact information.

Increasing “No Panhandling” and “No Loitering” signage and posters on Calhoun, Main and Sumter Streets and increase the number of trash cans on Calhoun, Main and Sumter Streets.

Utilizing the City Center Partnership “Yellow Shirts” and all other options available in order to further educate the homeless community and the public at large with regard to the City of Columbia’s Loitering and Panhandling ordinances and guidelines.

Offering three meals a day at the Emergency Homeless Shelter and to invite homeless meal providers to a “Feeding Summit” or “Meal Services Summit” in order to discuss consolidation of meal services and explore options for providers to assist with the Emergency Homeless Shelter’s meal service rather than providing their own.

Enforcing all ordinances and requirements related to public gathering and food distribution.

Moving towards providing permanent self-operating and self-cleaning restrooms on a 24-hour basis.

And to explore all available options to address the specific needs of veterans and families and children in our community.

Council also unanimously adopted a motion by Devine to explore options for a “homeless court,” and to explore recommendations from an Affordable Housing Task Force.

Finally, Council voted to cancel its Aug. 13 vote on the homeless issue.

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