City of Columbia forms task force to address homelessness, will expand mental health services

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Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 8:27 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2022 at 8:30 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Columbia city leaders are forming a task force aimed at preventing and ending homelessness in the capital city.

The task force will be chaired by At-Large Councilwoman Aditi Bussells and include District 2 Councilman Ed McDowell, District 3 Councilman Will Brennan, Columbia Police, neighborhood presidents and other community advocates.

The task force will be studying root causes of homelessness, and working to identify homelessness hotspots in the community.

“There’s not one solution to homelessness,” Bussells said.

With this idea in mind, Columbia leaders will be looking at several.

“I’m very excited for us to be taking a comprehensive approach that doesn’t kick this problem down the road for someone else to address, but that we’re tackling it head-on by having open, honest conversations,” Bussells said.

According to Bussells, the task force grew out of conversations with constituents both on the campaign trail and during the two several months. She said many have told her that their top concerns are homelessness and public safety.

She believes her background as a public health researcher will be key to understanding the full scope of the issue.

“I think I have that unique ability in order for us to think about things critically and in a way that looks at the data, that looks at the science, and makes sure that we again balance the needs of our communities with the health concerns that so many of our homeless are facing,” Bussells said.

To improve mental health services for those experiencing homelessness and others in distress, the city will also be expanding its Pathways Initiative.

This program embeds a South Carolina Department of Mental Health clinician with a Columbia Police officer to respond to calls that require mental health support.

Through the expansion, the city will be adding up to five additional clinicians. Right now, Columbia Police only employs one mental health professional embedded with Columbia Police.

The officers on the Pathways Unit are certified crisis negotiators.

Master Police Officer Christopher Bolling, who is the coordinator of the Columbia Police’s Pathways unit, said putting a spotlight on mental health is a big deal.

“You can’t arrest the problem away,” he said. “It’s not good for the person that’s in crisis, because they’re still going to be in crisis when they go to jail.”

Since the Pathways Unit was deployed last fall, Columbia Police has helped more than 120 experiencing a mental crisis, around a quarter of which were people experiencing homelessness.

Through this initiative, they have provided housing to some through the Department of Mental Health.

“We’re trying to sometimes get them through DMH to get them housed, that way that cares for them in two different ways,” Bolling said. “That helps them gain a place to live, and then that helps them with their illness because it provides stability.”

Bolling said his work on this unit has been very rewarding.

“It’s very taxing sometimes, even very emotional,” he said. “You almost get that instant gratification when you help someone. A lot of times as a law enforcement officer, you don’t see what happens further down the lien. You get that instant success right there. And it’s awesome. It makes you feel so good when that situation plays out and you’re able to help that person, get them the help they need right then.”

Bussells said the Pathways Initiative is critical because substance use disorder and mental illness are the top things that are often seen among those experiencing homelessness. These can often lead to crime and other issues around public safety if they are not dealt with proactively.

“We’re keeping things from happening altogether, as opposed to having to react to them, right?” she said. “So I’m very excited for us to be taking this prevention-based approach of making sure we let police do their job of policing, and letting people that are trained in de-escalating circumstances of mental illness, to address that in a way that people get the help that they need.”

Funding for the task force will come from the $27 million the city has received as part of the Federal American Rescue Act.

The task force will produce a report in six months outlining action steps that the city can take to address homelessness.

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