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Columbia at Breaking Point Over Homelessness
A man who gives his rap name as Holy Thug raps outside Hope Plaza, a place where homeless people and others congregate in the mornings to sip free coffee and socialize. Photo by Sean Rayford.
Before dawn, people begin showing up at the corner of Calhoun and Main streets, where a low brick wall surrounds Hope Plaza, a community outreach center operated by Christ Central Ministries. There’s a trailer set up to serve free breakfast: coffee and doughnuts.
Not everyone here is homeless, but many are. They sit and talk and smoke, lend each other their lighters. Some have alcohol on their breath and the yellow eyes of people whose livers aren’t long for this world; others are clear-eyed and quiet. Some are well dressed, with polo shirts tucked into clean pants; others, scruffy. Some have jobs; some say they can’t get one because of their criminal record.
A man hops up on the wall, takes off his hat and begins rapping about Jesus as people applaud. His rap name, he says, is Holy Thug.
A woman in a long coat asks another man if he has any extra minutes on his cell phone; he hands it over to her.
“We’re very good at looking out for people,” says Jack Burkheiner, seeing the phone change hands.
He’s a homeless veteran with children and grandchildren in the Columbia area.
But whether Columbia cares for its homeless is a question lots of people are asking.
Let’s be clear: Columbia has not criminalized homelessness, contrary to what you may have read in the national media. Nobody is being forced to enter a shelter, or being scooped off the streets without having committed a crime. The interim police chief says he’s not willing to do that, and the homeless we’ve spoken with haven’t heard of any crackdowns.
But several Columbia City Council members and the mayor are standing behind a proposal by Councilman Cameron Runyan that calls for the city to tighten its loitering and vagrancy laws, and present the homeless with a stark choice: go to a shelter, go to jail or leave town.
On Aug. 13, Council unanimously approved a plan to open the city’s emergency winter shelter early, in mid-September. That unanimous vote, unfortunately, is being widely reported as an endorsement of Runyan’s Columbia Cares proposal. It was not. But Columbia Cares is still very much on the table.
Publicly, some civil liberties groups are raising concerns: It’s not legal for the cops to target people simply because they’re homeless, or to divert them from jail to a shelter or a bus out of town.
And privately, Council members are tearing each other up over the issue.
|Has Columbia Criminalized Homelessness?|
Several national news outlets have reported that Columbia City Council voted to exile its homeless population.
In fact, Council has not voted on Councilman Cameron Runyan’s Columbia Cares proposal, which calls 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 voted on a plan to open its emergency winter shelter early. It’ll discuss that plan further at its regularly scheduled meeting Sept. 3. Council will also hear from the police chief about his plans for downtown security, and hear whether city staff can implement some measures proposed by a Homeless Advisory Committee, such as installing bathrooms downtown.
Homeless veteran Jack Burkheiner sits outside Hope Plaza, wearing a patch created by those protesting a controversial proposal to move the homeless off Columbia’s streets. Behind him is Chai, who declined to give his last name; he’s lived in tents and on the streets, and says he currently sleeps in a car. Photo by Sean Rayford
Burkheiner’s arm is wrapped in an Ace bandage. He broke it when someone tried to steal his phone while he was sleeping on the street.
Burkheiner usually sleeps on the street. He says he tries to minimize his time in shelters, using the city’s emergency winter shelter only when the temperature drops too low.
“When you get in shelters, you’re locked up with crazy people,” he says.
That’s not an uncommon position among the homeless. The city winter shelter also became unpopular last year because people weren’t allowed to bring their cigarettes and lighters in with them. And those seeking shelter at the city shelter have their names run through a law enforcement database for outstanding warrants, which some fear keeps people away.
Aversion to shelters is just the first of many complications for Runyan’s plan.
Homeless people have a lot to say about Columbia Cares.
It sounds un-American, says Burkheiner.
“I think it’s great people want to do something,” says Doug Becker, a man in a bright Hawaiian shirt.
However: “Calling this plan ‘Columbia Cares’ is like calling the German plan during World War II ‘Germany Cares’.”
Columbia’s been fighting about homelessness for years; this is just the latest chapter. But this particular fight has made national headlines, with people concerned over what sounds to many like an alarmingly inhumane proposal for keeping the homeless off the streets.
For others, it’s about time.
Is There A Problem Here?
Attorney Eric Bland says homeless people are making his downtown law office a difficult place to do business.
“They sleep on my porch,” he says. “They use the back parking lot as an area to defecate. They rifle through my trash on a weekly basis.” He’s had cars keyed, panhandlers, people rummaging through his trash, people asking to use the bathroom in his office.
He’s put up signs. He’s installed cameras. He bought a gun. He’s called the cops, he says, but the people are gone by the time the cops arrive.
“I’m at the point as a businessman where I can’t take it anymore,” Bland says.
He’s not alone.
“It is unfortunate that after seeing positive gains being made each day in the Main Street community that we are now experiencing an environment where our staff members and our guests no longer feel safe even within the confines of our building,” wrote Fred Martin, president of Mast General Store, in a letter to Council. Mast opened its first Columbia store in 2011.
Councilman Brian Newman, whose district includes the city center, says he gets several complaints a week about crimes connected with the homeless.
“It’s not so much about vandalism, breaking into cars or thefts — it’s mostly public urination, public defecation and loitering,” Newman says.
The number of homeless people in the Midlands has spiked. Every two years, the Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless does a federally mandated one-day count of all homeless people in the area. This year, that count found 433 people in shelters in Richland County, 278 in transitional housing and 807 unsheltered people, for a total of 1,518 homeless. That number was up nearly a third from two years earlier, with a particular spike in unsheltered homeless: There were 341 more people on the streets of Richland County this January than two years earlier.
And there’s some evidence that Columbia’s biggest urban legend — that other municipalities are shipping homeless people to Columbia — may be true. At the winter shelter last year, says Runyan, around half of the people staying there were not from Columbia.
Not every indicator shows homelessness on the rise. Transitions, a downtown homeless service center, hasn’t seen any recent increase in people using its day center, which is open to anyone.
But the perception among much of the public is that there are more homeless people out on the streets of the city, particularly this summer.
Homeless arrests and tickets, too, have been rising over the past several years. Statistics provided by the Columbia Police Department show the number of incidents involving people with no home or living in shelters rose from 659 in 2008 to 946 last year. Begging and loitering violations in particular rose last year.
The spike could be a result of more crime. Or it could be a result of more enforcement, as more people move their homes and businesses downtown and complain more to the police.
Or, as several homeless people have pointed out, more crimes by the homeless could simply be a result of more homeless people in the city.
But homelessness is still a major issue for the city’s business community. In April, a strategic plan commissioned by the city identified visible homelessness as one of Columbia’s major obstacles to economic development.
And so Runyan decided to hold a series of hours-long public meetings to gather solutions for dealing with the homeless.
People stepped up. Homeless people, downtown business owners, service providers — they took the time to tell Council their ideas, their complaints, their hopes.
But the plan that came about may not have been quite what they were expecting.
Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan, who took office just over a year ago, has stirred up residents, homeless service providers and his fellow council members with his approach to homelessness. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
It’s easy to hear the frustration in Runyan’s voice when he talks about his plans for dealing with homelessness in Columbia.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of homeless people,” he told Free Times in June. “There is a hunger among a preponderance of that population for help.”
He’s fond of quotes — the Declaration of Independence, Scripture. And lately he’s been quoting Alexander the Great: “On the conduct of each depends the fate of all.”
So Runyan just can’t understand why there’s so much opposition to his plans — though he has some ideas.
As the city was hosting its public input sessions, Runyan and Jimmy Jones sat down to develop a plan to solve Columbia’s homeless problem for good.
Jones is a Church of God pastor who runs Christ Central Ministries, which had a contract to operate the city’s winter shelter last year.
According to a 2012 profile in The State, Jones’ reach is wide. Christ Central took in at least $1.3 million in donations in 2011. It has missions in at least 38 of the state’s 46 counties. It operates halfway houses, alcohol treatment programs, job programs and homeless outreach, all on a shoestring budget using a pool of some 14,000 volunteers.
“It’s a very different mindset,” Runyan says of Jones’ approach. “Very servant oriented. Very sacrificial.”
Jones says he doesn’t have any special answers to homelessness in Columbia.
“We just ask everybody three simple questions,” Jones says. “What’s your emergency? What’s your goal? What do you need help with?”
Runyan rolled out Columbia Cares on June 4. Six broad goals form the backbone of the plan, and they’re hard to argue with: “Address root causes, not just symptoms.” “Create opportunities for people to work.” Those goals, Runyan says, are what he heard from the community during the feedback sessions.
But the specifics of the plan are something else entirely.
First, Runyan proposed a privately run treatment center called The Retreat on 100 acres of land 10 to 15 miles outside Columbia. There, he says, the mentally ill would get treatment and learn skills. To help fund services, homeless people would be asked to sign over their disability checks, food stamps and other sources of public assistance.
The plan doesn’t name Christ Central as the private entity that would run The Retreat, but Jones says he’s already identified 10 different tracts of land that could be used for it.
Runyan also proposed that the city set up a downtown induction and triage center at which homeless people would be assessed and sent to various programs. The city would also tighten and enforce laws on loitering, public urination, urban camping and other crimes associated with homelessness, Runyan said. Then, if someone were to leave a treatment program and violate a city ordinance, they’d have three choices: the induction center, leaving town or going to jail.
The city has to get out of the homelessness business, Runyan says frequently. Public money is drying up, so it’s time to turn to private charities to handle homelessness. But the city can control the intake point, putting city leaders in a position to force accountability on service providers.
Reactions to Runyan’s Plan
The plan found support among some business leaders.
The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and downtown business coalition known as City Center Partnership endorsed it — though they were careful to only say they endorsed the plan’s six broad goals.
Mayor Steve Benjamin welcomes the plan.
“In the interests of posterity: This is the first major action Columbia has taken on homelessness in 20 years,” he said at a press conference defending the plan.
He detailed Council’s years of inaction on the issue — including shelving the report of a homelessness task force Benjamin himself served on before he was mayor.
Solutions like Transitions, a downtown homeless service center, “happened in spite of Council,” he said.
But for others, Columbia Cares went over like a lead balloon.
Many homeless service providers say the plan isn’t based in best practices and doesn’t draw on their expertise. Sixty members agencies and 25 individual member of the Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless signed on to a letter saying the plan “recommends actions and approaches that are punitive at best, and quite probably are in violation of basic civil rights.”
“Rather than create a punitive systemic approach that forces individuals into jail, a required program or leaving town, [the Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless] is requesting that Council not adopt the Columbia Cares Plan,” they wrote. “MACH and its member agencies are asking Council to instead create a plan that uses recognized best practices that have proven effective results.” They offered to help the city develop a better plan.
Activists were alarmed, too. Attorney Tom Turnipseed, his wife Judith and other activists have been making burlap patches marked with an “H,” inviting homeless supporters to wear them around downtown.
In a letter to Free Times, the Turnipseeds wrote, “So we are separating outcasts with physical, mental and social problems from the mainstream of our culture and sending them to a ‘Retreat’ where they will take part in a work program and be concentrated away from civil society.”
Not so, Runyan said.
“It’s not a concentration camp,” Runyan said in June. “You have a choice of doing one of three things. … This has nothing to do with forcing people to go to jail. This has everything to do to with forcing people to be accountable for their actions.”
“Are we going to have one or two people who’re going to be problem children? Of course,” Runyan says. But he insists the plan is about giving people help.
Runyan also suggests service providers oppose his plan because they, too, don’t want to be held accountable.
“All I’ve gotten are spears and arrows from the provider community,” he told Free Times when his plan first launched. “They’ve attacked me. … The subtext of everything is they’re coming after me. They want to destroy my credibility.”
In fact, he says, some providers don’t want the homeless problem solved: “There is no profit in solving the problem.”
Asked to respond to that statement, Julie Ann Avin, executive director of Mental Illness Recovery Center, Inc., and advocacy chair for the Midlands Area Consortium on the Homeless, said, “Honey, we’ve lost money for the last five years in a row. … To my knowledge there’s not anybody for-profit doing anything for homeless services.”
In response, Runyan dug through the IRS forms of several homeless-serving nonprofits to find the salaries of their executive directors — which are, in some cases, around $100,000 a year, and sometimes higher.
He talks a lot about sacrifice. Many service providers, he’s said in emails to his fellow council members, are not willing to sacrifice for the community or the homeless.
Others say the problem lies in Runyan’s methods.
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, Runyan’s fellow at-large Council member, eviscerated Runyan in an email that also went to the rest of City Council and some city staff. Runyan had been quoted in The State saying City Manager Teresa Wilson needed to go back and read his latest plan, a statement Devine called “such a smart ass condescending statement and totally inaccurate.”
“The manner in which you are going about this is all wrong, as usual,” Devine wrote. “You have colleagues who want to work with you and do this the RIGHT way. But bad mouthing staff and misrepresenting the facts is [not] the right way.”
In another email, Devine wrote, in part, “As with members of Council, I do not think the community wants to be in opposition of this proposal, but drafting solutions without input and buy-in is a mistake. We (and when I say we, I mean the City as a whole) are being portrayed as a city that wants to criminalize being homeless. I don’t think that is anyone’s intention but we need to be mindful on how the presentation of this plan gives that impression.”
Runyan replied, in part, “Everyone reading this knows that anyone who says they were not afforded multiple opportunities for input is not being honest. They may not like the result, but ample input has been and continues to be received. … This will be a defining moment for the history of our city — for ill or for good. We are not hired to follow from the front of the line, we are hired to lead and leadership takes great courage in the face of fire.”
Though Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine are longtime friends, they find themselves on opposite sides of the debate over a controversial proposal to evict the homeless from Columbia’s streets. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
A Real S#!tstorm
City Council never voted on the Columbia Cares plan.
They’ll get to it, Runyan says.
Instead, he rolled out another proposal Aug. 13. This one, dubbed the Emergency Homeless Response, is supposed to address the short-term crisis in homelessness in the city. It calls for the city to open its existing winter shelter in mid-September; assign more officers to enforce existing laws downtown; and take other steps, like a hotline for people to call when they see someone homeless. Christ Central would operate the shelter again, and would cover any costs over and above what the city can pay.
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.
The transcript of the vote is confusing, with motions and restated motions that contradict each other. (We traced all the tangles and contradictions in a blog post.
Runyan has said that Council approved his entire Emergency Homeless Response plan. However, the only thing Council clearly approved that night is to try to open the shelter early. That’s backed up by both Runyan’s foes and his supporters. Councilman Brian Newman, a level-headed voice on Council and a reliable ally of Runyan and Benjamin, says the only concrete action Council approved Aug. 13 was asking the city manager to negotiate a contract to open the shelter early.
“My thought was, and I’m still pretty clear on this: We approved an emergency homeless plan that called for extension of hours for our emergency shelter,” Newman says. “There are also other elements that call for continued meetings, long-term planning.”
That hasn’t stopped publications from Think Progress to the Huffington Post to the New York Times from reporting that Council has approved a plan to exile the city’s homeless population. (The Times has since updated its report.)
Although it hasn’t yet passed, there are certainly some causes for legal and humanitarian concern in Columbia Cares.
Cities have faced court challenges over their treatment of the homeless.
The City of Miami settled a case in 1998 in which it agreed not to arrest homeless people for “involuntary, harmless acts’’ that result from being homeless without first offering them a bed in a shelter, according to the Miami Herald. (The city is now seeking to overturn that agreement.)
Last year, New York settled a case for $15 million for having arrested thousands of homeless people and others under its unconstitutionally broad loitering law. Loitering and panhandling laws are highly susceptible to constitutional challenges, as they can violate people’s freedom of assembly and right to free speech.
And in its most recent term, the U.S. Supreme Court found the City of Los Angeles had violated the homeless’ constitutional rights by carting off and destroying their belongings; the city had argued that possessions left on a street could pose a health hazard.
The ACLU of South Carolina is monitoring Columbia’s approach to homelessness, according to executive director Victoria Middleton.
“We certainly think it raises constitutional concerns if they’re going to implement it the way it’s been described in the press,” she says. “We shouldn’t be arresting people for being homeless. Law enforcement needs to have reasonable suspicion.”
Runyan has said repeatedly that people aren’t going to be arrested for being homeless. He says the city would be enforcing existing laws — or newly tightened ones — that apply to everyone.
But even with those caveats, if the entire goal is to move homeless people off the streets, the ACLU would have concerns about that, too.
“I think foot patrols are a good thing, because police get to know people in the community and vice versa,” Middleton says, “but ramping up police presence so homeless people are arrested is a problem.”
But ramping up police presence downtown is no different from ramping it up in Five Points, said attorney Dick Harpootlian at a press conference to defend the Columbia Cares plan. He told media Monday he thinks Columbia Cares would stand up to a court challenge on constitutional grounds.
(That press conference was hosted by attorney Eric Bland, who kicked off the press conference by asking Turnipseed and some other homeless supporters to leave his property, as TV cameras rolled. The press release about the press conference came from Mayor Steve Benjamin’s campaign office.)
The interim police chief, too, has raised concerns about Columbia Cares. Law enforcement isn’t allowed to give someone an alternative to being arrested — like, say, going to a shelter or getting on a bus, as Columbia Cares calls for. Either someone’s committed an offense for which they’re supposed to be arrested or ticketed, or they haven’t.
“Just to be clear, there will be no ‘In lieu of going to jail or being ticketed, you’re going to go to a service provider.’ We can’t do that,” Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago tells Free Times.
When it comes to transporting people to the emergency city shelter this fall, or any other shelter, “We’re only going to deal with people that want assistance,” Santiago says.
At the same time, Santiago says his department has already increased its focus downtown recently, making more “field contacts” with homeless people. He’ll present a plan for downtown security at the next Council meeting.
Bland, the downtown attorney who says homeless people are making his business difficult, says he’s sensitive to constitutional questions, but doesn’t think Runyan’s proposals raise any such questions.
“If they’re not where they’re supposed to be, which is getting therapy, getting rehab or at the shelter, if they’re not trying to get these services, it’s not an acceptable alternative for them to just wander the streets,” Bland says.
When Free Times points out that wandering the streets isn’t against the law, Bland says it’s more about behaviors.
“It’s not illegal to wander the streets, but it’s illegal when you’re doing it in conjunction with panhandling, with using the bathroom in public.”
Bland is just frustrated that people are tearing down the plan.
“I want to ask all the people that are against this plan: Should nothing be done? Should we provide more meals? … Is that the vision of our city? Or should we help people to not be homeless?”
Runyan, too, is annoyed by all the criticism.
“I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about from the civil liberties folks,” Runyan says. “All the hyperbole and all the fussing going on right now — I don’t think people are thinking logically.”
These issues are likely to get an airing, though. Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine has asked that the city attorney review the legal questions surrounding anything Council votes on.
At its next meeting, on Sept. 3, Columbia City Council will vote on whether to approve a contract with Christ Central Ministries to operate the city’s emergency homeless shelter, opening in mid-September.
Council won’t take up Columbia Cares yet, says Runyan.
“Let’s cross this bridge first,” he says.
But as Free Times went to press Tuesday, people were gathering downtown to protest the proposal — and a lot of them are likely to show up Tuesday wanting to talk about all the city’s plans for the homeless.
There are some outstanding issues with the winter shelter contract, too.
Most notably: Last year, the city required Christ Central to hire licensed case managers through Transitions to work with the homeless. This year, it’s not clear that will happen.
“Let me tell you, I’ve found out it doesn’t take a specialist to let somebody know you care about them,” Jones says. “Our problem in this generation is we think more education is going to solve the problem.”
Devine has said she’ll push for licensed case managers at the city shelter.
She’s also pushing for more data, in particular some sort of evidence that the emergency plan is working.
“We need some accountability at the end of the seven months,” she wrote in an email to Runyan. “What deliverables are we looking for?
His answer: “How many homeless are on the streets. This will be self-evident — just as it is now with the existing approaches.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy Jones warns that if Council makes the process too difficult, Christ Central will move on.
“I would probably say that if this drags on … Christ Central’s going to withdraw,” Jones says. The need in other communities is so great, he says, that he’d rather put resources where they’re wanted.
With the November election looming, the tenor of Council’s discussions is likely to get worse, not better.
And the more the public pushes back against Runyan — people have been posting Hitler quotes on his Facebook wall, he says — the more he’s likely to dig in.
“I can live with myself for the rest of my life and say I always did what I believed in,” he says of his crusade to help the homeless.
Even his critics agree.
“There is in no way I think Cameron really wants to be punitive to the homeless,” Devine tells Free Times. “I truly believe in his heart of hearts he truly wants to help. But it’s the way his stuff comes across.”
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