A few weeks ago, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin spearheaded a resolution to welcome refugee and immigrant children and expressed City Council’s support for comprehensive immigration reform. In the midst of discussing the resolution, Benjamin evoked the words of 18th century S.C. Sen. John Lewis Gervais, who once said he hoped “the oppressed of every land might find refuge under the wings of Columbia.”
Now that the refugee children have been welcomed, one is left to wonder: Will the homeless residents of the city also find refuge under those wings?
The City of Columbia is currently searching for a homeless services coordinator to help deal with homelessness issues in the area. The city has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the coordinator post, and the deadline for those proposals is Friday.
But there are lingering questions about the city’s role in addressing homelessness, particularly since the 24-hour shelter on Calhoun Avenue — commonly referred to as the winter shelter — closed in early July. Multiple city sources have said the shelter will likely not reopen this coming winter. Shuttering the shelter was a “policy decision” of City Council during the budgetary process, according to City Manager Teresa Wilson.
It was routine for 200 or more people per night to seek refuge at the winter shelter, especially on exceptionally cold nights or at times when there was other inclement weather.
While there are other agencies in town — such as Transitions and Oliver Gospel Mission — that provide services to the homeless, the closing still has some people concerned.
Julie Ann Avin is the executive director of the Mental Illness Recovery Center, Inc. and a board member of the Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless (MACH).
“I think we obviously have seen in the past few years that we still need more than just the beds that Transitions and Oliver Gospel Mission have,” Avin says. “Especially when it gets really cold in the winter months. I do share concerns about where those individuals will be able to find shelter during the winter.”
Avin says the MACH board, in coordination with United Way of the Midlands, is writing a response to the city’s RFP for homeless services coordination.
According to MACH’s 2014 Regional Profile of Homelessness, the number of people in the 14-county Midlands region who receive homeless services has been on the rise in recent years. The MACH report called the escalating number of people older than 45 who receive homeless services “concerning.”
For example, the report indicates that in 2010 there were 698 homeless people between the ages of 45 and 61 in the region. By 2014, that number had skyrocketed to 2,581, a nearly 270 percent increase.
“I think one of the things with the numbers increasing is that we have gotten better at counting the homeless,” Avin says. “I think that is one part of it. The other thing is that we are seeing more folks who are first-time homeless and we are seeing an increase in elderly people who are homeless.”
Carla Damron is the executive director of the South Carolina Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She is worried there could simply be a significant reduction in the number of available beds for the homeless if the city doesn’t reopen the winter shelter this year.
“I don’t love the winter shelter,” Damron says. “I don’t think it’s a perfect operation. But it is something, and it is a place for people to be when it is really, really cold. ... You are taking away an important tool for the homeless services coordinator to use. It’s not perfect, but it’s a place to start. Yes, we do need to make a long-term plan and, yes, it needs to include employment opportunities for the homeless and long-term housing for the homeless and education. But, in the meantime, let’s not let them freeze to death.”
Mayor Steve Benjamin insists the city would provide shelter in emergency scenarios.
“Columbia will always have an emergency shelter,” Benjamin says. “We will always be prepared to have a response for inclement weather, whether it’s in the summer, spring, winter or fall. That’s our responsibility. What we need to pull together is a comprehensive solution that includes government, nonprofits, the business community the faith community and individual citizens working together to try and make sure we do our fair share at meeting the needs of the homeless.”
When asked directly whether the city plans to continue to open the 24-hour winter shelter, as it has been doing in recent years, Benjamin replied “No.” After pausing for a moment, Benjamin continued, saying “Let me say this: That’s a decision for Council to make, as a matter of policy. But the mayor’s position is ‘No, absolutely not.’”
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