Columbia has started a more than $20 million project to renovate Finlay Park, but some people close to the homeless community are concerned about the impact the remodel has had on the city's homeless population while it's temporarily closed.
The City of Columbia's project to revitalize Finlay Park includes repairing and expanding its spiral fountain, adding office space for hospitality workers and park rangers, constructing a band stage and incorporating other amenities, such as bathrooms and pathways.
The city broke ground at Finlay Park, located between Gadsden and Assembly Streets, on Sept. 14. Construction is expected to take around two years.
The park has been a gathering place for the homeless community in Columbia, with homeless residents often spending their nights sleeping in the area.
But homeless people now need to find other places to sleep with the construction.
Victor Thomas, a homeless marine veteran, frequently spent nights at the park before its temporary closure.
Thomas plans on staying at a bus stop while the park is closed. The new location exposes him to theft and forces him to keep a closer eye on his belongings, he said.
One way the city could help, Thomas said, is by setting up a tent to pass out meals or adding a portable bathroom while the park undergoes renovations. Otherwise, homeless people have to clean themselves at the library, with the nearest one being two blocks away.
"That would help a lot," Thomas said. "If we were clean (or) we had somewhere to eat, somewhere to sleep."
Tracy Shelly, a local who lives near Finlay Park, walks her dog there every day and has gotten to know some of the homeless people. She said she doesn't know where the homeless should stay but doesn't think the park is a good solution.
“We’re concerned about what’s going to happen to them and where they’re going to go," Shelly said. "Overall, the city needs a better plan. The park is not the place for the homeless, and feeding them at the park is not a cool deal. I mean, it’s just not a good setup."
While the city is focused on revitalizing the park, Assistant City Manager Henry Simons said there are also options from the city and the community that people can choose to access.
"We don't specifically tell the homeless population where to go. We do have services that we provide to the homeless population. There are also partners around the city that provide services to the homeless population as well," Simons said. "There are multiple opportunities for them to receive service, and we of course leave it up to those individuals who decide what services they will choose."
Columbia People’s Programs, a local group that distributes food at the park, has also been concerned about the city’s handling of the local homeless population.
Columbia People's Programs member Jacklyn Sobotowicz said shutting down the park for renovation, on top of introducing more legislation that criminalizes the homeless, has made it harder for the group to find people in need of assistance.
“The population of people has not diminished. They have simply been hidden from public view, so people are still there who need our help,” Sobotowicz said. “They are just not easily found because the city has actively been pushing them out of the city.”
Advocacy groups, such as the South Carolina American Civil Liberties Union, signed a letter in September to Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann protesting recent policy choices. The propositions included an ordinance that alters a city law on urban camping, which the signing groups said will do significant damage to the livelihoods of local homeless people, according to The Post and Courier.
A person must recieve a warning before they can be arrested for urban camping, the act of living in a public space over long periods of time.
The updated ordinance specifies that these warnings can be issued at any location, as the law refers to the behavior of urban camping itself and does not consider it a location-specific offense.
The closure of Finlay Park has also made support organizations find other places to hand out food.
Columbia People's Programs began feeding the homeless outside of Richland Library Main, Sabotowicz said. But the group has faced conflict with the city police for handing out food without a large gathering permit, according to an article from The State.
“The antagonism towards homeless people in the city, by city council, by the city manager and by the police directly should really be ramped down, and the focus should be less on criminalizing and more on providing assistance,” Sobotowicz said.
Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann said in an email to The Daily Gamecock that he recommends that homeless Columbia residents use Rapid Shelter Columbia — a city initiative that houses people in miniature homes.
"(Finlay Park) is the crown jewel of our city, and we are going to restore it and maintain it," Rickenmann said. "For safety, we have to close the park to all while it is under construction, but we encourage anyone that needs help and is experiencing homelessness to reach out to Rapid Shelter Columbia or other service providers in the community for assistance."