Stop in evening church meal service leaves city stalled
_This story is the first in a three-part series featuring homelessness in Columbia.
Downtown Columbia’s Ebenezer Lutheran Church served evening meals to about 150 people each day for three years. When its service agreement with the Salvation Army expired March 31, city leaders and service providers stalled over who should pick up the tab for continuing the service.
Meanwhile, the city’s homeless were left with one less option for finding a nightly meal.
The halt of the Ebenezer Lutheran meal service appears to be the push that set into motion a new cycle of community discussion surrounding homelessness in Columbia. Not for the first time in recent history, political and community leaders are hoping a new round of communication will lead to developing goals and plans for addressing homelessness in the city.
“This issue has been a political football in the city for years and years. This is our opportunity, our season to change,” Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan said.
Whatever change the city can hope to see depends on goals the community can come together and define for itself, Runyan said. The city is sponsoring two public forums in the next week to discuss ideas for how to deal with homelessness — Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and Tuesday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Earlewood Park Community Center.
Runyan said the city needs feedback from all of its sectors, including businesses, service providers, religious organizations and neighborhoods. One consensus goal he’s seen emerging already is a need to address the concentration of homeless people and services in the downtown area.
“Without a goal, you may do a lot of work to no end,” Runyan said. “If you build a plan without a design for what is the unified goal of the city, it’s not going to work.”
WHERE WE’VE BEEN
In late 2004 the state laid out a 10-year blueprint to end homelessness. Developed by the South Carolina Council on Homelessness, the plan defined 10 specific goals covering a range of prevention, housing, supportive services and accountability issues.
In the meantime, Columbia was working with Richland and Lexington county leaders on its own plan to end chronic homelessness in the area, according to Anita Floyd, vice president of community impact for United Way of the Midlands.
The city floundered for some time in the mid-2000s with attempts to set up an essential one-stop shop for homeless services downtown, Floyd said. And when that idea at last crumbled, city leaders instead directed resources toward adopting a housing-first strategy that put a few dozen chronically homeless people into permanent supported housing, according to Floyd.
Around the same time, community leaders from outside the political sector embarked on a private campaign that eventually resulted in the opening of Transitions homeless shelter downtown in June 2011. According to the shelter’s website, Transitions’ program has helped move 325 people into permanent, safe housing of their own.
WHERE WE ARE
“A lot of things in the blueprint have been realized,” Floyd said. “It’s a good time to stop and take stock and see where next.”
But more than eight years have passed since the creation of the 10-year blueprint, and the state does not appear to be on track to fully eliminate homelessness.
The most recent data available of single-night homelessness counts estimated 4,701 sheltered and unsheltered people met the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of homelessness in the state in 2011.
In Richland County, that count was 1,065 — more than 20 percent of the state’s homeless population. And the 2011 count showed an almost 25-percent increase from the county’s 2009 homeless count of 853.
WHERE WE’RE GOING
“The poor will always be with you, so the question is not whether you will have poverty, but what is your response to poverty,” Runyan said. “And our response right now is enormously ineffective. We’re just not meeting the need with the right response yet.”
The city’s focus for responding to homelessness this time around needs to be on creating more affordable housing, Floyd said. Part of that issue is getting housing costs to match what people can earn, she said.
“People need to have affordable housing,” Floyd said. “There are people in our community that need to have supportive services — it’s just life. People don’t all start out on a level playing field. Then there are long-term pieces that need to be developed to make those things work.”
Runyan said the city needs to “lift up other avenues” besides government funding to respond to the problem of homelessness. He’s looking for collaboration among multiple sectors of the community to define the city’s goals and work toward solutions.
“We’ve been mired in the mediocrity of our response to homelessness long enough,” Runyan said. “I don’t know what the response is going to be until the goal is defined. I don’t know what the goal is going to be.”
Editor’s note: The author is a student in Bret Kloos’ South Carolina Honors College class, “Homelessness in South Carolina: Research and Action.” Research and reporting was done for this series as part of a final research/advocacy project.