Over the last few weeks, our community has been engaged in a highly public debate about how the city deals with our homeless brothers and sisters. Although this conversation has been heated at times, I believe all sides have made very valid points about how this city has handled (or not handled) homeless services in our community to this point. But I have been disheartened that in all the “solutions” presented up to this point, this conversation has failed to adequately address the root causes of homelessness and what role the city, in partnership with local advocates and agencies, should play in developing real solutions to help end homelessness.
The current conversation has revolved around sheltering the homeless, and that has to be addressed, but I fear it has taken center stage. We have lost the focus on how to assist the homeless and help them get access to life-changing resources.
Many people have accurately identified that the homeless population is not monolithic. We in Columbia, like every other city in our nation, have diverse groups of people living on our streets. Our homeless population is made up of people who have mental illnesses and/or substance abuse issues, veterans, ex-offenders, people who have been hit hard by the economy and even families with children. There are even a number of working poor who unfortunately do not earn enough to obtain adequate housing.
As a small business owner, I have empathy for those in our downtown business districts who have expressed their concerns. The concerns are understandable, but we must find ways to handle this matter in humane ways that will ultimately yield positive results.
One plan, program or solution will not be sufficient to address all of these problems. The solutions considered need to be as diverse as the populations that need to be served.
Among the solutions that have been absent from this conversation are the need for more mental health professionals, job training programs and affordable housing.
And just like one program cannot address all the issues, neither can one government agency, volunteer group or nonprofit organization. This is a global problem and it is going to require a global approach in order to identify solutions that will benefit the community as a whole.
There are multiple studies, research documents and statistics available about homelessness, but we must add the human element in order to develop a multifaceted, long-term comprehensive plan that addresses each population that requires help. We need mental health experts, veterans affairs advocates, affordable housing professionals, government leaders, social workers and law enforcement officials at the table — just to name a few. Columbia is the home of progressive leaders and caring citizens, and I know that we can work together to effectively address this issue.
A short-term option is needed, but I also hope the focus of this discussion soon turns toward long-term solutions that will address the reasons why people are homeless. Until we do that, we will simply keep spending our time on finding ways to provide shelter and not how to decrease and hopefully end homelessness.
Tameika Isaac Devine
Columbia City Council
Homeless Situation Dire, Needs Solution
I have worked at 1901 Main St. (Bank of America Plaza) for the last 17 years and can attest to the fact that we have blocks within our city center that have a high constant concentration of the homeless population. On a positive note, we have purchased a historic icon located on Gervais Street and could not be more excited about locating in the heart of Columbia’s thriving Congaree Vista.
A large homeless presence can cause people to feel unsafe and not secure. When people do not feel safe and secure, they invest their dollars elsewhere and companies lease space elsewhere. Property values erode, rental rates compress and the quality of life deteriorates. We have seen this occur in areas with pockets of homelessness and perception can often impact reality in key real estate decisions.
Failure to act on a homeless issue will likely result in the stagnation or regression from the positive momentum we are seeing in our downtown area. Surely we can arrive at a compassionate balance helping the least among us without jeopardizing downtown’s quality of life, economic vitality, and the positive momentum of the major investments currently taking place in our urban core.
Is there not a delicate balance with helping the homeless yet avoiding being a regional or multi-state hub for the homeless? Given the fact that nearly 70 percent of the property in the city is tax-exempt, can we afford to absorb the current pace of the increasing homelessness or our disproportional share compared to other similar size regions? Will we answer the cry for help from catalyst driver Mast General Store? What about a small business owner who may be close to throwing in the towel? What assurances can we offer the small business owner that the “out of control” homeless issue has a comprehensive solution and a clear path forward?
We enthusiastically support the government, businesses, realtors, faith-based organizations, residents, homeless advocates and nonprofits to address and come to a consensus now about the homeless situation in Columbia. The result must satisfactorily address the humane needs of the homeless and balance it with the needs of the center city business interests to be successful. However, the situation is dire and no longer can remain unaddressed or the economic interest and progress that the city is making will suffer or be lost.
People want to live, work and play in vibrant urban areas, and we need to ensure that Columbia remains competitive. We urge the city to assign more police officers downtown (including Columbia’s Congaree Vista and Five Points) to enforce laws against loitering, panhandling, public urination, urban camping and other activities associated with some of the homeless population.
Too often in Columbia the vocal minority opinions shout over the silent majority opinions. Homelessness is a complex issue that will require comprehensive and collaborative solutions. We need more people to speak up and get involved in moving our city forward to reach its true potential. We are so close and I truly believe we are on the cusp of having a strong and vibrant urban core we can all be proud of. Let’s all work together in a positive way to ensure we reach an effective and compassionate solution for this issue.
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