This Just In

Did Columbia Criminalize Homelessness?

See if you can figure it out.
By Eva Moore
Thursday, August 22, 2013 |
There’s been a lot of national media attention on Columbia this week because of Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan’s plans for dealing with homelessness in the city.

However, several council members say they did not actually vote to approve Runyan’s plan.

Care to accompany us into the weeds? Here’s what we know:

1. Councilman Cameron Runyan actually has two plans for dealing with the homeless.

The first, proposed in April, is called Columbia Cares and calls — among other things — for tightening city laws on panhandling and loitering, and presenting repeat violators with three choices: a treatment program, leaving town or going to jail. He also proposes a privately run, out-of-town homeless facility called "The Retreat." Council has not voted on that proposal. Runyan says it’s meant to be a long-term solution. Though some business groups have endorsed the plan’s broad goals, others are alarmed by the details.

Runyan floated his second plan, the Emergency Homeless Response, on Aug. 13. It calls for the city to open its existing winter shelter in mid-September to deal with what some say is a spike in homeless people on the streets; assign more officers to enforce existing laws downtown; and other measures, like a hotline for people to call when they see someone homeless.

2. Council discussed and voted on the Emergency Homeless Response plan in the waning hours of a council meeting that started at 6 p.m. Aug. 13 and lasted past 3 a.m. Free Times left at midnight. We know of no other reporters who were there for the final council vote on the homeless issue.

3. Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about parts of Runyan's plans.

4. Following the meeting, Runyan told The State and Free Times that Council had unanimously approved his emergency plan.

5. However, two other council members told Free Times that no, they didn’t approve the entire plan, but simply voted to move forward with some details — city staff are going to bring them a proposed winter shelter contract and propose some security measures for downtown, for example.

6. On Aug. 19, the city clerk gave Free Times a draft of the motion Council had approved. It reads:

“Upon a motion made by Mr. Runyan and seconded by Mayor Benjamin, Council voted unanimously to direct staff to engage with Christ Central and bring back an amended contract to proceed with opening the Emergency Shelter on or before September 15, 2013 while working within the established budget; ensure that the oversight committee is inclusive of the Homeless Advisory Committee and other interested parties; start working through the short term issues; give staff the latitude to allow this to evolve in a meaningful way; and ask the Acting Police Chief to present his plan for downtown security.”

7. In an Aug. 20 email to council members, City Manager Teresa Wilson wrote, in part:

“As to the homelessness discussion on August 13th, I am very clear as to what Council directed me to do in the short term -- to take all necessary steps and due diligence to assess how we can open the Emergency Shelter no later than September 15th but with the latitude to make recommendations and bring those back to Council along with a revised contract with Christ Central if Mr. Jones is so inclined to continue to work with us. I was specifically asked to review and assess the police and fire resources that will need to be deployed to safely and efficiently operate the shelter. In addition, Chief Santiago is to review the additional measures he is already taking in the downtown core (specifically Main Street) and bring back to Council on Sept. 3rd his strategy for downtown safety and an assessment of needs -- realizing that his resources and deployment of officers may be impacted by the concentration of foot traffic, etc., that will migrate to the Emergency Shelter if the proposed plan goes fully operational. Finally, I was asked to thoroughly review the Council Homeless Committee recommendations and pull out any short term solutions that can be implemented immediately as well as move forward with our park permitting requirements for feeding.”

She confirmed to Free Times today that those are the things she's been working on.

8. Up to this point, it seems as though many people at that meeting thought Council hadn't approved the entire plan outright. But on Aug. 21, Runyan gave Free Times a
transcript, newly prepared by the city clerk, of the part of the meeting that included the homeless vote. The key bits start on the bottom of page 12, when Runyan makes this motion:

“I would ask that we proceed to move forward, attempt to open on September 15th working within budgetary confines that we have, the $500,000 we’ve allocated. Honestly there are going to be ancillary costs that are going to have to be accounted for and we need to know about. I’m going to tell you that the business community is very vocal that they need additional police protection to protect the commerce in this city and that’s something I think we need to be looking at anyway. But, I would ask staff to continue to engage Christ Central to bring back, if they are willing to engage with us, to bring back something [inaudible], I mean the contract for this Council to open that shelter 24/7 on September 15th or earlier if possible.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin seconded the motion.

But several pages later, asked to restate the motion, Benjamin says:

It’s to move forward with the plan as presented, to also move forward with immediate implementation of the committee’s recommendations that are before us; to empower the manager to come back to us with a contract that will be presented to us on the 3rd for consideration; to give staff, CPD and everyone else the latitude to allow this to evolve in a meaningful way that allows us to provide input and proper oversight that we’re supposed to provide, but also the ability to adjust accordingly; and I think to in everything that we do from this point forward let’s make sure that we maintain a very open and aggressive spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and communication and we can get this done together.”

Council voted unanimously in favor.

9. So, did they approve Runyan's entire Emergency Homeless Response Plan "as presented"? Runyan says yes. But Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine says that, even having read the transcript, she still didn't feel she was approving some of the more controversial bits of Runyan's plan, but merely the specific things stated in the motion. There's also the problem of the original motion and the restated motion being different.

10. What we do know: The police chief told Free Times he can't make the homeless go to a shelter or anywhere else if they’re not breaking any laws.

11. The ACLU and SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center still plan to weigh in on Runyan's proposals, and the city attorney will likely give Council a briefing on what is and isn't a violation of civil liberties.

12. Council will take this all up on Sept. 3. At that meeting, they're likely to take a vote to reaffirm what, exactly, they voted on.

It's likely to be a heck of a meeting.

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