Last week, city officials in Columbia, S.C., approved a plan to remove the homeless population of the city from the downtown area as a means of protecting the Columbia’s growing commerce.
The Emergency Homeless Response, headed by Councilman Cameron Runyan (D), was unanimously approved by the Columbia City Council. Under the plan, police will patrol downtown Columbia and remove all homeless individuals from the area. Should they refuse to leave, they will be subject to arrest. A hotline will be set up to aid the process, so that downtown residents can report the presence of homeless individuals to the police. Police will also more strictly enforce Columbia’s “quality of life” policies, which include bans on public urination and loitering, among others.
As a supplement to the plan, an emergency winter shelter on the outskirts of the city will be opened year round to accommodate the influx of homeless individuals exiled from the city center. However, as the shelter only has 240 beds, it is unlikely to be able to handle the entire homeless population of Columbia, which numbers about 1,518 people.
In addition, while homeless individuals will be allowed to stay at the shelter, they will not be permitted to leave unless a prior appointment is made for a shuttle service to take them off the premises. A police officer will be stationed at the shelter to ensure that the shelter’s residents do not venture back downtown.
The plan has been met with criticism from homeless advocates who argue that it violates rights to equal treatment under the law and freedom of assembly. The South Carolina ACLU is among those groups that are investigating the plan.
“The underlying design is that they want the homeless not to be visible in downtown Columbia,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the South Carolina ACLU. “You can shuttle them somewhere or you can go to jail. That is, in fact, an abuse of power.”
Since the plan was approved, it has also met resistance from the city’s police department. Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago has said that his department does not have the manpower to transport homeless individuals to the shelter, and that officers are unable to charge homeless people with nuisance offenses if they choose not to go to the shelter. City manager Teresa Wilson also argued against the plan, saying that no agreements were made to transfer police officers to enforce the new laws.