Two people walk past an urban camping scene on Main Street in Columbia. August 2013 photo by Sean Rayford
A group of volunteers spent some time this week cutting patches out of burlap, decorating each with a big “H” and attaching a safety pin.
“I’ve got one on right this minute,” says Judith Turnipseed by phone. “We encourage people to make their own to be in solidarity with our homeless friends.”
Turnipseed and her husband Tom Turnipseed are involved in a group called Homeless Helping Homeless, and serve food in Finlay Park each Sunday with Food Not Bombs. And they’re among those urging ordinary citizens to wear patches as they wander and hang out downtown — maybe even doing a bit of loitering.
“We don’t think downtown should be a gated community,” Turnipseed says.
On the other hand, take the downtown attorney who spoke with The State this week about homeless people hanging around on his property, making his clients feel unsafe: “I’ll debate anybody about the constitutional issue as to whether my rights are equal to the rights of the homeless. ... I don’t agree there’s a constitutional crisis here.”
The patch-wearers and the attorney are reacting to a new plan floated last week by Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan to address what many say is a recent surge in visible homelessness downtown.
Under Runyan’s “emergency homeless response” plan, which Council voted on last week, the city’s winter shelter would open early, in mid-September, and all local groups that feed the homeless would begin feeding them on-location at the shelter.
Runyan also wants the city to assign more police officers downtown to enforce laws against loitering, public urination, urban camping and other activities associated with the homeless. Released prisoners, too, would be dropped off at the shelter instead of a downtown street corner.
“If we don’t address the problem right now, it will have potentially adverse effects on the commerce community,” Runyan explained as he gave a slide presentation of his proposal to Council Aug. 13. He cited letters from several downtown business owners who’ve expressed concerns about homeless people making them and their customers feel unsafe.
But disagreements are emerging, from concerns about civil liberties to several council members saying they didn’t actually approve the plan as Runyan has reported.
Council’s much-anticipated homeless discussion came late at night Aug. 13, after an hours-long discussion and failed vote on a strong mayor referendum. Free Times left the meeting at midnight. Council voted on the homeless plan sometime after 2 a.m. Official minutes of the meeting are not yet available.
Council didn’t adopt Runyan’s entire plan outright, according to several council members and a draft of the approved resolution provided by the city clerk. Instead, they authorized the city manager to work on a contract with Christ Central Ministries to open the city shelter early, then bring it back to Council, and asked the police chief to “present his plan for downtown security.”
“We never approved … opening early, until we get some numbers,” says Councilman Moe Baddourah. “We never authorized [more police downtown]; it was always talked about as ‘The chief will come back with recommendations.’ We never passed a resolution that we’re going to force people or arrest people to go to the shelter.”
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine concurs: She says Council did not approve Runyan’s plan.
Nevertheless, Runyan’s proposal has stirred up concerns that the city would violate people’s civil liberties if it steps up enforcement against those perceived to be homeless.
The city has heard from both the South Carolina branch of the ACLU and the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, both asking Council to slow down and let them make some recommendations on the issue, says Devine.
And people like the Turnipseeds are objecting to what they see as criminalization of homelessness.
Runyan says the homeless won’t be dealt with differently from anyone else. He says homeless people aren’t currently held to the same standard as other people.
“Nobody in this city should be allowed to defecate on the sidewalk, walk around drunk, sleep on a park bench, camp in the park, all the various things we have,” Runyan says. “Because there is no relief for them, they’re not accountable to those laws the way you and I are.”
“I can promise you, if you go out and use the bathroom in front of the Free Times, you will get arrested. They will not,” he says.
Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago says his officers don’t ignore crimes committed by the homeless.
He also notes that he can’t make the homeless go to a shelter or anywhere else if they’re not breaking any laws.
“I can go up and talk to anyone, but unless you’re breaking the law or committing a crime, I don’t have the legal right to take you into custody,” Santiago says.
Devine has other concerns about how the city would enforce Runyan’s plan.
“Like the feeding thing — are you going to be mandating that feeding happen [at the winter shelter]?” she asks. “And what do you do to private nonprofits who say ‘I’m going to continue to feed on my private property’?”
Runyan says he’s made progress in persuading groups to move their meal service to the shelter.
There’s one thing most people involved agree on: There are more homeless people on the streets in Columbia lately.
“I do feel like Councilman Runyan has accurately identified that there’s a problem in the last year and we have to change some things,” Devine says.
An earlier plan proposed by Runyan, called Columbia Cares, also drew some criticism over its proposal that the homeless be relocated to a shelter outside the city. However, some heavy hitters like the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and City Center Partnership endorsed the six broad goals underpinning that plan.
Council next meets Sept. 3, and will take up the homeless discussion again then.
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