Kicking Out the Homeless in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina

The controversial plan, approved by the city council, would exile those who sleep outdoors in the city center to a shelter on the outskirts of town

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Columbia's homeless will have the choice of going to a shelter or being arrested.

Finding ways to help the homeless population is one of the hardest problems any big city faces. However, one South Carolina municipality has found a cheap and easy solution: Out of sight, out of mind.

Under the “Emergency Homeless Response” plan (which can be read in full here), passed last week by the Columbia City Council, homeless-looking citizens in Columbia’s 36-block downtown area will be asked by police to move to a shelter on the outskirts of the city. Should the person refuse, the State reports, “they could be arrested under a range of public nuisance laws that include loitering, public intoxication, public urination, aggressive panhandling or trespassing.”

Coercing suspected homeless into shelter on the edge of town is just one of the plan’s controversial aspects. Once at the shelter, the potentially unwilling residents would be prevented from leaving except by specific appointment. The only approved way to exit the installation is by reserving a shuttle ride. In order to further ensure shelter-goers do not return to the business district, a police officer will be placed on the road leading downtown to redirect homeless people away from the area.

The central role of a single shelter has also been criticized for not providing the capacity necessary to house all of Columbia’s homeless. The expanded center, slated to open on September 15th, would only have enough room for less than one-sixth of the city’s homeless population.

The South Carolina capital isn’t the first city to try relocating homeless people. From Hawaii to San Francisco, other areas in the U.S. have offered the homeless one-way plane tickets back to their places of origin. But these recent plans bear little resemblance to Columbia’s mandatory removal of suspected vagrants. Both San Francisco and Hawaii’s programs are voluntary, and intended to re-unite the homeless with family members who can help them get back on their feet.

Instead, Columbia’s plan is more reminiscent of the “tough love” policies of the late 1990s, most famously associated with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. A 1999 TIME article reports how 24 cities had begun conducting nightly police sweeps to dislodge the homeless, and detailed the NYC mayor’s plan to remove all “able-bodied” homeless people from shelters if they refused to work. A New York Times article from the same year recounts how the NYPD would hand out $76 citations to those living on the street as punishment for “camping in public.”

Homeless advocates in Columbia have made it clear that the City Council’s plan will not be implemented without a fight. Tom Turnipseed, a local attorney, has promised to file a federal lawsuit, and he expects both the ACLU and Columbia’s Appleseed Legal Justice Center will aid his efforts.

But at least some Columbians have expressed support for the Council’s policy. Eric Bland, a lawyer, told the State that the large number of homeless people near his workplace make him feel unsafe. “The lawyers that are screaming aren’t the ones at Ground Zero of this,” said Bland. “They’re not the ones paying the taxes.”

“It’s the city’s obligation to provide for the health and welfare of its citizens,” Bland added. The homeless “don’t have the right to stop people from the use and enjoyment of their property.”