City proposal addresses homeless in downtown area

Published: Aug. 15, 2013 at 10:32 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2013 at 10:32 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Columbia City Council members spent hours Tuesday night taking comments from the public on the issue of changing the city's form of government.  After voting on that, they got around to another huge issue facing the city-- the homeless.

And early Wednesday morning, all seven members approved a new proposal designed to at least begin fixing the city's homeless problem.

For many of Columbia's homeless, life on the streets is about to change. After years of debate and stalemates, city council members have taken a first step toward lowering the number of homeless people who congregate in the downtown business district both day and night.

Within the next month the city will unlock and open its winter shelter near the Columbia Canal.

The 240-bed shelter will be used to provide housing, meals and services for the homeless, taking them blocks away from business and residential areas where they've been linked to everything from panhandling and vandalism to drug trafficking.  

The shelter will remain open until the end of March.

Councilman Cameron Runyan says the plan amounts to a temporary fix.

"This is stopgap," he says. "This is going to open up a window of opportunity for us to come together as a community to develop a long term response to this problem. This problem has plagued us for a generation and a half at least."

The plan calls for boosting the police presence in areas like Calhoun Street, where several business owners have told us they've seen an explosion in the homeless population, along with a significant increase in criminal activity in recent months.

David Brown runs a bed and breakfast on Richland Street.

"There's just a presence of police officers all the time," he says. "And it's very difficult to rent rooms when you have people parking on the street and walking up and someone getting arrested right then."

The city also proposes using the shelter as a new drop off point for people released from jails and prisons, instead of the current arrangement that takes them to the Sumter Street bus station.

Runyan says more changes will be needed.

"We have to understand that the only cure for poverty is commerce," he says. "That is the only true response to poverty, to get people out of poverty. So if poverty is left unchecked, it will destroy commerce. So we've got to protect commerce to have a response to poverty."

Council members voted unanimously for the new approach.