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South Carolina city to get tough on homeless

Some say needy hurting economy

Homeless people waited at the Oliver Gospel Mission in Columbia, S.C. Some want to move the shelter far from downtown.

Anne McQuary/New York Times

Homeless people waited at the Oliver Gospel Mission in Columbia, S.C. Some want to move the shelter far from downtown.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In South Carolina’s capital, officials declare that their tree-lined Main Street, clogged with shops, banks, restaurants, and hotels, is evidence that a long-sought economic revival has arrived.

But mere blocks north, a dozen or so of the county’s approximately 1,500 homeless people sit on a short wall near an empty parking lot, waiting for private shelters to open. They sporadically shout curses at passersby while they smoke cigarettes and endure the summer humidity.

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With business owners sounding increasingly worried about the threat they believe the homeless pose to Columbia’s economic surge, the City Council approved a plan this month that will essentially evict them from downtown streets.

The unanimous vote epitomized how Columbia’s dueling realities — a rush of self-confidence among political and business leaders and continuing poverty for others — have become driving forces of public policy here.

Among metropolitan areas in the South, the nation’s fastest-growing region, Columbia is late to a boom period.

In the city, which has branded itself “the new Southern hot spot,” residents say the city’s time has come. They point to plans for the 181-acre campus that once housed the state’s mental hospital and will, over the next two decades, become a mixed-use development with an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion.

Speculation is rampant that a minor-league baseball team will relocate to Columbia. Less flashy projects also abound, including the conversion of a vacant office building into housing for University of South Carolina students, some of the more than 780,000 people who live in the metropolitan area.

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But business owners are warning that rising homelessness in Richland County — up 43 percent in two years, according to the South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless, an increase many blame on an absence of affordable housing options and a sluggish national economy — is imperiling the area’s prospects.

“People are afraid to get out of their cars when they see a homeless person,” said Richard Balser, who owns a luggage store downtown. “They haven’t been a problem. They just scare people.”

But one executive cautioned the City Council in an e-mail that “our staff members and our guests no longer feel safe” and that it is “virtually impossible for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model.”

Comments like those have galvanized city officials, whose controversial plan was widely supported by business leaders.

Under the new strategy, the authorities will increase enforcement of existing vagrancy laws and offer the homeless three options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail, or leave Columbia.

The city is also planning to impose limits on meal service for the homeless on public property. And it plans to station a police officer at a strategic location between the city’s shelter and downtown to “monitor and control foot traffic.”

“If we don’t take care of this big piece of our community and our society, it will erode the entire foundation of what we’re trying to build in this city,” said Councilman Cameron Runyan, who wrote the proposal and has suggested moving Columbia’s homeless shelter as far as 15 miles from downtown. “What I see is a giant risk to business.”

He has also cited a report from the police that showed increases in crime last year among the homeless, including assault and trespassing.

Opponents of Runyan’s plan, which will also keep the city’s 240-bed shelter open two months longer than the previous November-to-March schedule, have said it would do little more than degrade Columbia’s neediest.

“You’ve got to get to the root of the problem: why we’re homeless,” said Jaja Akair, a homeless man who spoke to lawmakers during a City Council session that stretched past 3 a.m. “You can’t just knock us to the side like we’re a piece of meat or a piece of paper.”

Other critics have warned that they are considering court challenges to the plan, which will take effect in September.

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