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Columbia takes steps to keep homeless out of downtown

By Alan Blinder
New York Times

COLUMBIA In South Carolina’s 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.

But mere blocks north, a dozen or so of the county’s 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 Columbia’s economic surge, the City Council approved a plan this month that will essentially evict them from downtown streets.

The unanimous vote epitomized how Columbia’s dueling realities – a rush of self-confidence among political and business leaders and continuing poverty for others – have become driving forces of public policy here.

Among metropolitan areas in the South, the nation’s fastest-growing region, Columbia is late to a boom period.

New Orleans rebounded after Hurricane Katrina and became a hub for startup companies. Raleigh has logged significant job gains. Greenville, S.C., transformed its downtown, earning the admiration of Columbia. And in Nashville, Tenn., 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 city’s time has come.

They point to plans for the 181-acre campus that once housed the state’s 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 area’s 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 haven’t been a problem. They just scare people.”

Others offered more dire assessments. One executive cautioned the City Council in an email 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.

Under the new strategy, the authorities will increase enforcement of existing vagrancy laws and offer the homeless three options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail or leave Columbia.

The city is also planning to impose new limits on meal service for the homeless on public property. And it plans to station a police officer at a strategic location between the city’s shelter and downtown to “monitor and control foot traffic.”

“If we don’t take care of this big piece of our community and our society, it will erode the entire foundation of what we’re trying to build in this city,” said Councilman Cameron Runyan, who wrote the proposal and has suggested moving Columbia’s homeless shelter as far as 15 miles from downtown. “What I see is a giant risk to business.”

He has also cited a report from the police that showed increases in crime last year among the homeless, including assault and trespassing.

Opponents of Runyan’s plan, which will also keep the city’s 240-bed shelter open two months longer than the previous November-to-March schedule, have said it would do little more than degrade Columbia’s neediest.

“You’ve got to get to the root of the problem: why we’re homeless,” said Jaja Akair, a homeless man who spoke to lawmakers during a City Council session that stretched past 3 a.m. “You can’t just knock us to the side like we’re a piece of meat or a piece of paper.” Turning to the business executives in the audience, 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 such as 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 Columbia’s plan in an email as “an extreme, highly disturbing example.”

Although Foscarinis’ group found in 2011 that cities were increasingly enacting prohibitions against activities such as 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 don’t solve the problem of homelessness. You can’t jail people out of homelessness.”

Columbia’s 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 Greenville’s downtown.

“We’ve 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 whether the city had misplaced its efforts.

“People complain more about parking,” Brown said.

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