Homelessness is finally catching the attention of the media, everyday people and even politicians in the Midlands of South Carolina. We've heard much about compassion, humanity, respect and some sensible approaches to ending homelessness.
A community approach to homelessness has challenged the Midlands for years. Recently, City Councilman Cameron Runyan has led on the issue. In April, he called for several public meetings to solicit solutions from our diverse community. People responded. Every meeting was full, with all seats taken and people lining the walls, eager to speak or hear others' ideas. Council members and the mayor were there to hear from service providers such as Transitions Homeless Center, United Way, and The Free Clinic, as well as from volunteers, neighborhoods, downtown business owners and the homeless themselves. Most speakers were positive and made excellent suggestions. A few spent their time painting the homeless as subhuman pariahs who must be eliminated from the community immediately.
On June 4, Councilman Runyan presented his report, "Columbia Cares: A Vision for Addressing Homelessness," to Council and the public. The six goals Councilman Runyan synthesized from community input were aspirations most of us can agree on. The lofty ideals include bringing "humanity to the response" and meeting the "unique needs of the individuals in need."
Other goals, some more specific, are ones we can rally around: "Create opportunities for people to work." The homeless we know are crying out for jobs. Provide "public hygiene facilities." The homeless and downtown residents agree on this. "Bring accountability to those in poverty." As in the rest of the population, there are responsible homeless people and there are irresponsible homeless people who give others a bad name. "Address the root causes, not just symptoms." Yes!
We support the report's proposal of an induction center, a "one-stop-shop" triage to identify the needs of the homeless and direct them to community resources. The greater Columbia community can probably agree on that as an efficient way to assist the homeless toward overcoming the obstacles on their way to self-sufficient living.
Then comes the scary part. Councilman Runyan's plan also contains ideas that volunteers in the homeless community believe smack of banishment, exile and the questionable redirecting of personal assets. These ideas we will oppose as strongly as we support the positive ones.
The plan states that if the homeless violate existing laws -- such as loitering, panhandling or urban camping -- they must go to the induction center, go to jail or leave town. How convenient! Banishment is one way of clearing Columbia's streets of undesirables. The plan no doubt includes this last option of getting the homeless out of town in hopes of sending our problems away for someone else to deal with, rather than facing them ourselves. Surely those of all faiths are struck by how far afield that approach is from the admonition of our faith tradition to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.
Go to the Retreat
Scary idea number two is sending those found physically or mentally deficient to a proposed facility called The Retreat. This facility, a 100-plus-acre privately owned facility 10 to 15 miles outside of town, is referred to in the plan as the shelter of last resort. So we are separating outcasts with physical, mental and social problems from the mainstream of our culture and sending them to a "Retreat" where they will take part in a work program and be concentrated away from civil society. Makes us mindful of the giant sign across the main entrance of the Auschwitz work camp in Poland: Arbeit macht frei; labor makes you free.
The Funding the System section of the "Columbia Cares" report states that the cost of the retreat facility and other programs will be defrayed in part by "payments currently being lost" such as food stamps, housing and disability. These items will be redirected to the provider of the service. This sounds like a plan to have the residents' Social Security disability checks turned over to the provider. This will certainly require new legislation -- and the plan is appalling.
We who volunteer with the homeless will strongly support positive solutions to ending homelessness -- and will work to let the public know the whole story when plans are made concerning the homeless.