A proposal for reducing homelessness in Columbia, SC has received a lot of attention since City of Columbia Council member, Cameron Runyan presented it in June. While a full proposal with clear strategies, outcomes and budgets has never been presented, the PowerPoint description of the policy direction alarmed those of us who work in the field. SCCH members voiced their concerns early to City Council. Members of the SCCH feel compelled to publicly share our concerns with the punitive approach of Columbia Cares. We encourage everyone with an interest in ending homelessness to review the proposal, Columbia Cares. We find many problems with the approach. Specifically:
- Homeless people are already invisible. The emphasis on removing homeless people from the downtown rather than offering them comprehensive services to help them get out of homelessness does not end homelessness so much as relocate it.
- The recommended actions do not reflect any best practice, evidence based or otherwise proven strategies for reducing homelessness. There is a lot of research to assist communities in their struggle with this issue. Remarkably, developing new permanent supportive housing is never mentioned as part of the solution for our community. “Housing First,” has proven very effective in supporting even people with long histories of homelessness into housing.
- The plan disregards the civil liberties of people on the street. It offers three alternatives to people who are deemed unable or unwilling to become “self-sufficient:” go to jail, leave the community or be processed and transferred to a program 10-15 miles outside of the city called the “retreat.” Law enforcement would “aggressively” enforce existing laws and “tighten” other ordinances to ensure the people on the street are moved through these options. The plan includes a telephone number that local businesses or neighbors can use to report homeless persons in “violation” of the law. These individuals would be taken to the “retreat.” Aside from our concerns with the targeting of homeless people, we must point out that arresting and jailing people are not cost effective strategies.
- The coalition is very concerned that the retreat will be supported by residents whose “existing entitlements” will be “redirect(ed as) payment to (the) provider.”
- The proposal does not build on the work and direction of the local coalition of providers. For example, local providers already collaborate on outreach services and over two dozen providers currently provide services to homeless adults in a 24/7 facility that has been opened for just two years but is already moving people into permanent housing. On a larger scale, providers across the state are collaborating to develop a statewide intake and assessment system that integrates homeless client databases (HMIS) with 211 (a statewide information and referral line). Columbia Cares was developed without input from those who are currently serving homeless people or people who are or who have been homeless. Ironically, the proposal even contradicts or ignores recommendations of the City’s own homeless task force which also recently reported it findings.
We sympathize with downtown business owners who are working hard to grow their businesses and attract customers as we too want to enjoy a thriving downtown Columbia. A better plan would be developed if we all work together (SCCH, local homeless providers, business owners, politicians, faith community, the public) to create solutions that improve the quality of life for all. We are ready to assist local efforts to develop a proposal that serves everyone. But there are too many problems with Columbia Cares. The SC Coalition for the Homeless strongly urges the City of Columbia not to support this poorly developed and punitive plan.