5081South Carolina City will Prohibit Homeless from Downtown
- Sep 23, 2013South Carolina City Takes Steps to Evict Homeless From Downtown
Anne McQuary for The New York Times
Homeless people waiting for a meal and a place to stay at the Oliver Gospel Mission in Columbia, S.C.
By ALAN BLINDER - Published: August 25, 2013
COLUMBIA, S.C. In South Carolinas capital, officials declare that their tree-lined Main Street, clogged with shops, banks, restaurants and hotels, is evidence that a long-sought economic revival has arrived.
What I see is a giant risk to business, said Cameron Runyan, a member of the City Council, whose strategy gave the homeless three options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail or leave Columbia.
But mere blocks north, a dozen or so of the countys approximately 1,500 homeless people sit on a short wall near an empty parking lot, waiting for private shelters to open. They sporadically shout curses at passers-by while they smoke cigarettes and endure the summer humidity.
With business owners sounding increasingly worried about the threat they believe the homeless pose to Columbias economic surge, the City Council approved a plan this month that will essentially evict them from downtown streets.
The unanimous vote epitomized how Columbias dueling realities a rush of self-confidence among political and business leaders and continuing poverty for others have become driving forces of public policy.
Among metropolitan areas in the South, the nations fastest-growing region, Columbia is late to a boom period.
New Orleans rebounded after Hurricane Katrina and became a hub for start-up companies. Raleigh, N.C., has logged significant job gains. Greenville, S.C., transformed its downtown, earning the admiration of Columbia. And in Nashville, an investment company recently introduced an exchange-traded fund exclusively featuring area businesses.
In Columbia, which has branded itself the new Southern hot spot, residents say the citys time has come.
They point to plans for the 181-acre campus that once housed the states mental hospital and will, over the next two decades, become a mixed-use development with an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion. Speculation is rampant that a minor-league baseball team will relocate to Columbia. Less flashy projects also abound, including the conversion of a vacant office building into housing for University of South Carolina students, some of the more than 780,000 people who live in the metropolitan area.
But business owners are warning that rising homelessness in Richland County up 43 percent in two years, according to the South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless, an increase many blame on an absence of affordable housing options and a sluggish national economy is imperiling the areas prospects.
People are afraid to get out of their cars when they see a homeless person, said Richard Balser, who owns a luggage store downtown. They havent been a problem. They just scare people.
Others offered more dire assessments. One executive cautioned the City Council in an e-mail that our staff members and our guests no longer feel safe and that it is virtually impossible for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model.
Comments like those have galvanized city officials, whose controversial plan was widely supported by business leaders.
If we dont take care of this big piece of our community and our society, it will erode the entire foundation of what were trying to build in this city, said Councilman Cameron Runyan, who wrote the proposal and has suggested moving Columbias homeless shelter as far as 15 miles from downtown. What I see is a giant risk to business.
Mr. Runyan has also cited a report from the police that showed increases in crime last year among the homeless, including assault and trespassing.
City officials have clashed about what precisely the Council approved during a marathon meeting, but Mr. Runyan said the intent of his strategy was to increase enforcement of existing vagrancy laws and offer the homeless three options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail or leave Columbia.
Although those options were not detailed in Mr. Runyans emergency proposal, he said they were implicit. They are included in his permanent plan, which the Council will consider later.
Opponents of the emergency plan, which will keep the citys 240-bed shelter open two months longer than the previous November-to-March schedule, have said it would do little more than degrade Columbias neediest.
Youve got to get to the root of the problem: why were homeless, said Jaja Akair, a homeless man who spoke during a City Council session that stretched past 3 a.m. You cant just knock us to the side like were a piece of meat or a piece of paper.
Turning to executives in the audience, Mr. Akair said: Try giving us a shot. I guarantee you some of us would run your business better than you do.
Other critics have warned that they are considering court challenges to the plan, which will take effect in September.
This summer, cities like Tampa, Fla., and Portland, Ore., have pursued aggressive policies against the homeless. But Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, characterized Columbias plan in an e-mail as an extreme, highly disturbing example.
Although Ms. Foscariniss group found in 2011 that cities were increasingly enacting prohibitions against activities like panhandling and loitering, researchers have questioned the efficacy of such tactics.
These kinds of proposals are happening more and more around the country, said Robert Adelman, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo. But to me, all of these ordinances and policies just redistribute homeless persons. They dont solve the problem of homelessness. You cant jail people out of homelessness.
Columbias efforts to support the wishes of local businesses have not been limited to the homeless initiatives. City leaders are also asking the courts to stop plans for a federal halfway house that would be near the widely anticipated mixed-use development on Bull Street, a project led by the same man credited with revitalizing Greenvilles downtown.
Weve got to make sure that every single thing we do focuses on continuing to attract advancement, Mayor Steve Benjamin said. Nothing can be a distraction.
But Lori Brown, who owns a fabric store on Main Street, wondered if the city had misplaced its efforts. People complain more about parking, Ms. Brown said.