Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness

09/04/2013 01:47 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013
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Columbia, South Carolina has decided to rescind its controversial decision to criminalize homelessness after facing major backlash from police, city workers and advocates.

Columbia’s city council decided on Tuesday to reverse its unanimous vote that would have given homeless people the choice to either go to a remote shelter or get arrested, according to the Free Times. The council apologized, backtracked on its decision and said it would give homeless people the option to go to the shelter, but would not force them to.

“I will take responsibility for that getting into the public discourse,” Councilman Cameron Runyan said on Tuesday about his suggestion to force homeless people into confinement, according to the Free Times. “That is not the desire…We are not going to forcibly confine anyone.”

Runyan’s softer stance is a far cry from his stern Aug. 13 declaration.

Last month, after bemoaning the fact that Columbia’s Downtown area had become a “magnet for homeless people,” the council decided that it would make loitering and panhandling in the area illegal and it would make homeless people go to a 240-person bed shelter or go to prison. The measure would have required additional police to round up homeless people and to stand guard at the facility to make sure that no one left without permission.

But even the members of the law enforcement who would have been needed to carry out the plan would not get on board.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago told The State.“We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”

After paying heed to the concerns of those who opposed the plan, the city council has revamped the approach to putting an end to homelessness.

The city will dispense vans that will take people on the streets to the shelter, if they choose to go, and they will be able to stay there for a week before getting transferred to a more stable program that addresses their specific needs.

The city will also install public bathrooms and garbage cans and will educate people about the city’s loitering and panhandling policies by putting up explicit signs, according to the Free Times.

But the city council hasn’t smoothed out all of the program's kinks.

Runyan suggested using the homeless people’s food stamps, Social Security checks and other benefits to help pay to run the shelter, but some aren’t sure if that is legal. The shelter, which is poised to open at the end of the month, also doesn’t have kitchen facilities, so it’s still unclear how it will provide food to homeless people.

Still, advocates felt bolstered by the council’s willingness to compromise.

“The city of Columbia, Christ Central Ministries and service providers recognize that meeting the challenge of homelessness and poverty requires a community response and that this is a ‘we’ challenge, not a ‘them’ challenge," Mayor Steve Benjamin said, according to the State, "and never an effort to deprive any individuals of civil liberties or to criminalize poverty."

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