Many homeless people in Columbia, South Carolina are facing an arduous choice: vacate downtown or be arrested.
That’s because last week, the Columbia City Council unanimously approved a new plan — the Emergency Homeless Response” — to remove homeless people from the downtown business district. Here’s how the initiative, which was spearheaded by Councilman Cameron Runyan, will work.
Police officers will now be assigned to patrol the city center and keep homeless people out. They will also be instructed to strictly enforce the city’s “quality of life” laws, including bans on loitering, public urination, and other violations. And just to ensure that no one slips through, the city will set up a hotline so local businesses and residents can report the presence of a homeless person to police.
In order to accommodate all the homeless people who will now be banned from downtown, the city will partner with a local charity to keep an emergency shelter on the outskirts of town open 24 hours a day. However, it’s unlikely the shelter, which can handle 240 guests, will be enough to handle the local homeless population, which numbers more than six times the available beds.
Homeless people can stay at the shelter, but they’re not permitted to walk off the premises. In fact, Columbia will even post a police officer on the road leading to the shelter to ensure that homeless people don’t walk towards downtown. If they want to leave, they need to set up an appointment and be shuttled by a van.
In other words, the 1,518 homeless people in the Columbia-area now have a choice: get arrested downtown or be confined to a far-away shelter that you can’t readily leave. Jail or pseudo-jail.
Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told ThinkProgress that this measure was the “most comprehensive anti-homeless measure that [he had] ever seen proposed in any city in the last 30 years.” He likened it to county poor farms that were prevalent throughout the Midwest many decades ago. “Using one massive shelter on the outskirts to house all a city’s homeless is something that has never worked anywhere in the country,” Stoops said.
Homeless advocates may soon file suit to overturn the plan, arguing that the plan violates homeless peoples’ rights to equal treatment under the law and freedom of assembly. The South Carolina ACLU is also exploring the matter. Susan Dunn, the group’s legal director, was highly critical. “The underlying design is that they want the homeless not to be visible in downtown Columbia,” Dunn said. “You can shuttle them somewhere or you can go to jail. That’s, in fact, an abuse of power.”
Columbia’s move mirrors an unfortunate trend sweeping cities across the country: criminalizing homelessness. Already this year, cities as disparate as Miami and Tampa to Palo Alto have passed various ordinances making it virtually illegal to be homeless inside city limits.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to Runyan as a Democrat. His seat is non-partisan, though he was elected with the backing of Democrats.