Julian Omidi discusses a plan drawn up by a South Carolina city to move the homeless population away from a popular district.
Homelessness is a complex problem with a huge variety of social and economic contributors; not a problem that will simply disappear. However, certain City Councils believe that it can be legislated out of sight for the benefit of commerce.
Homelessness makes most of us uncomfortable. When we see a homeless encampment, we are nervous about getting out of our cars; when we see a homeless person sleeping in a doorway or hovering around an outdoor café, we make a note to look after our purses and wallets. Business owners make a note of this; when they see an increase in the homeless population in their neighborhoods, they know that a decrease in business is sure to follow. In an effort to protect the business community, the city of Columbia, South Carolina has taken steps to remove the homeless population from their downtown retail district. However, the plan the City Council has embraced seems, to many, to not only be draconian, but ultimately ineffective.
Walking along the streets of downtown Columbia, residents can’t fail to notice the line of displaced persons congregating in a parking lot near one of the unopened homeless shelters. They sit, surrounded by their few, battered possession, smoking, issuing comments to the passersby and occasionally argue loudly amongst themselves. The city has a homeless population of approximately 1,500, and, like in most large cities, they tend to remain in the more crowded and anonymous districts where they are less likely to be bothered by local authorities. Recently, the Columbia City Council elected to evict the homeless from the downtown region by making homelessness, essentially, illegal. In a unanimous vote, the council decided that the homeless must reside in a designated homeless shelter or leave the city of Columbia, otherwise risk being arrested.
This plan essentially amounts to homeless redistribution; it does nothing to address the larger problem of homelessness. Columbia, like many large cities undergoing a renovation after a major natural disaster (in this case, Hurricane Katrina), try to make the region hospitable to businesses and high income residents. In Columbia’s case, the officials elected to use the property of what was once a mental hospital for a large multi-use development complex which is estimated to rejuvenate the local economy within the next twenty years. The downtown area has been revived, and there is hope that Columbia will be the next home of a Major League farm team, which will bring tourism and a jolt of revenue. With all of this planning for economic prosperity comes a grim side effect; many residents will be priced out of the city as property values inflate significantly.
Advocates for the homeless plan to challenge the act in September, which they consider extreme and inhumane.