City Council's homeless plan creates difficult challenge for CPD

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The City of Columbia is about to launch a new strategy to deal with the homeless in the downtown area.

The plan is a direct result of last week's unanimous vote by the City Council, but that vote created a difficult challenge for the Columbia Police Department.

It's one thing for city officials or the business community to say something needs to be done to reduce the presence of the homeless in the downtown business district. It's another thing entirely to make it happen and accomplish that objective in a morally and legally acceptable fashion.

But that is exactly the task being handed to Columbia Police because its officers will be on the front line of enforcing the city's council directive.

The new plan says police have to try to move dozens, if not hundreds, of people to the city's winter shelter or some other appropriate place.

In some circumstances, those who resist might end up facing arrest.

Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago says his department will try to be sensitive while keeping in mind the potential for violations of civil liberties.

"We want to make sure we're doing things with a legal right," said Santiago. "Meaning it's a great idea to get them to those service providers. We always ask questions like, 'How can we do that without infringing on someone's civil liberties or their right to be on their own?'"

Santiago says right now, his department expects to focus primarily on those people who may be breaking the law. He says he understands that being homeless is not a crime and officers cannot target someone simply because of the way they appear. That, he says, gets into the area of stereotyping and profiling.

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