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South Carolina City Approves Plan to Exile its Homeless

Scott Keyes
Think Progress / News Investigation
Published: Wednesday 21 August 2013
Police officers will now be assigned to patrol the city center and keep homeless people out.
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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 (D), 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.

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ABOUT Scott Keyes

Scott Keyes is an investigative researcher for at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Scott went to school at Stanford University where he received his B.A. in Political Science and M.A. in Sociology. He has appeared on MSNBC and TBD Newstalk TV and been a guest on many radio shows. His writing has been published by The Atlantic, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott comes to DC from southwest Ohio, a state very near and dear to his heart.

I know some people are taking

I know some people are taking an absolute position on this, but consider that there are some gray areas, too. I live in a small Southwestern city and around the Walmart Super Center can be found a rotating number of "homeless," with the hand-printed cardboard sign. You seldom see any "Work for Food" signs; it's mostly "stranded" or "God Bless" and so on. One guy actually had a sign that said,"I'm honest, give me some $$ so I can buy some booze."

One thing we sometimes forget is that before we had "homeless," we had "hobos," those transients looking for handouts because that was their chosen lifestyle. I've been so down on my luck in my youth that I took a job washing dishes, but I was too proud to stand around with a sign looking for a handout. There are some low-level jobs, even in our small city, and I can't help wondering why these sources of revenue aren't sought out, since standing around in the hot sun for hours would be a lot more tiring to me than digging ditches, shoveling manure, or washing dishes.

I am not heartless. I still give money occasionally to people who actually look like they're temporarily down on their luck, but some of these people, and they're usually guys in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, are plainly winos and hobos who don't want to be tied down to holding even a temporary job. Some are also people who should be in mental institutions. But even here, I know they have a homeless shelter where people can get fed and sleep off the streets. This may or may not be the case in Columbia; I just don't know.

"Homeless" became a popular and accepted term during the Reagan years, when there were actually families who lost their income and their homes, and they were clearly victims of a sick economy, not a sick mind. But I haven't seen any of these "homeless families" on the streets. It's almost always a guy who, for whatever reason, would rather stand around with his hand out, so they can curse the people who drive by them. And more than once I've offered one of them a chance to earn some money doing some yard work or whatever, and I've never had one who took my offer.

So, they're not all the same, from one region to another. But one thing is clear: some of them, at least, have chosen this lifestyle, for better or worse. Those who haven't, usually have sources for help in turning their lives least where I live. So, without knowing a great deal more about the "homeless"denizens of Columbia, SC, I won't be so quick to damn them or praise them.

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