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Crime data provides evidence for supporters of city's homeless plan

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

Fresh numbers from the Columbia Police Department show sharp increases in crimes linked to the city's homeless. For supporters of a plan to reduce the homeless population downtown, the figures provide more evidence the city needs to take strong action.

Business and residential property owners have often told city officials about what they've experienced over the last couple of years. Now they have some hard data on their side.

The Police Department tallied up the number of incidents it has dealt with over the last five years in connection with people determined to be homeless or transient.

Police came up with seven categories, including simple assault, begging or loitering, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and alcohol-related offenses.

In the first couple of years of the study, the numbers showed significant drops or zero change for all seven categories. Then in 2011, something happens: dramatic increases in several of the categories.

For instance, there was a one year increase in begging or loitering of more than 179 percent and a 42 percent spike in liquor law violations. Overall, statistics showed a 26 percent hike in total crime linked to homeless suspects.

The spike in all seven categories continued in 2012, resulting in a two-year overall increase in criminal activity of 71 percent. The trend is still upward this year.

"When you look at the numbers, the complaints, the amount of incidents, those all go to the information that we get that there's an increased homeless population in Columbia. Our focus when it comes to the enforcement is that if those complaints are filed with us, we will actively investigate them," said Columbia Police Interim Chief Ruben Santiago.

City Councilman Cameron Runyan says the numbers amount to solid evidence of the need for the plan approved by council to move people off the streets and into shelters.

"It's a very consistent trend line and it's very obvious that our downtown business district -- it's not an illusion. I think those who have criticized businesses saying, 'Well, the problem is not as bad as you say it is,' well, the police numbers support that yes, it is as bad as we say it is," said Runyan.

Runyan says the city has also allowed a culture to exist and has not appropriately responded to it.

"It's just going to continue to grow. There are always people flowing into our city, so the question is are we going to respond to that flow by providing help and hope to the humanity on the streets and relief to the businesses on the streets," said Runyan. "If we don't, it just builds up, and that's what we're seeing right now."

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