Erin Burke, Erin Burke

Local residents respond to Columbia's Emergency Homeless Response

Critics of city plan stage ‘loiter-in’ on Main Street.

A homeless man stood with a group of demonstrators on Main Street in downtown Columbia Tuesday, wearing a homemade clapboard sign and reaching out to anyone who would speak with him:

“We live here. We shop here. We count too.”

Donning burlap “H” patches to draw attention to the issue of homelessness, at least 75 other people joined him in a peaceful “loiter-in” in response to the controversial Emergency Homeless Response unanimously adopted by City Council earlier this month.

Participants spent two hours walking, sitting and wandering on Main Street between Hampton and Blanding streets.

Kevin Oliver, a Lexington County retail manager who lived in Columbia for over 15 years, organized what he called the “loiter-in” to “keep the conversation going” about how the city is responding to the volume of homeless people in downtown Columbia, he said.

The city’s plan, primarily authored by Councilman Cameron Runyan, aims to transport individuals from the streets of downtown to a 24-hour shelter outside the city. It has drawn significant national media attention in the past week, including articles by The New York Times, Time, USA Today and The Huffington Post, which have described the plan as an eviction of the city’s homeless population.

Runyan did not return messages left by The Daily Gamecock Tuesday.

The Emergency Homeless Response was developed in the wake of complaints by several downtown businesses, including Mast General Store, who have said that homeless people on the streets create an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment for their employees and patrons. Critics of the plan say it essentially criminalize being on the streets.

“I’m fully in support of the businesses and I sympathize with the problems they have to address,” Oliver said. “The problem I have is with the city trying to corral otherwise law-abiding citizens.”

The Emergency Homeless Response plan says that “no person will be subject to any law in a manner that is different from any other citizen.”

But some who have experienced homelessness in the city say they are treated differently.

“They want to put us in the country, and it’s unfair to treat us this way,” said Robin O., a woman who says she has been homeless for three years. “Officers harass us even though we haven’t done anything wrong. The city is not equipped to handle these issues.”

Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago and City Manager Teresa Wilson have said they do not plan to redirect police units to downtown for the purpose of shuttling the homeless off the streets.

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

Ranging in age and economic background, the Main Street demonstrators all voiced similar concerns about the city’s plan.

Melissa Senf brought her two young children to the event.

“I want to teach my kids about speaking up for others,” Senf said. “If [City Council] thinks this is the right thing to do, then they are sadly mistaken. There has to be a way to hear everyone’s opinion, not just disconnect from the problem.”

Senf heard about the rally from the event’s Facebook page, which encouraged participants to “peacefully” protest an “unconstitutional, immoral ‘rounding up’ of ‘those people’.” More than 2,000 people were invited to join the rally.

Oliver said the event was about taking a stand for “human dignity.”

“And it’s about respecting the rights of law abiding citizens, whether they have a home or not,” Oliver said.

Representing the homeless opinion among those on Main Street Tuesday, Robin O. was left asking, “Where are my rights? Why is the city taking them away?”


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