South Carolina Town Looks to Exile Homeless People

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August 26, 2013; New York Times


Columbia, South Carolina has declared itself as the “the new Southern hot spot” and many are excited at the number of exciting possibilities that are coming the city’s way, including a 181-acre campus that will become a mixed-use development with an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion, the possibility that a minor-league baseball team will relocate to Columbia, and the conversion of a vacant office building into housing for University of South Carolina students.

What may stand in the way of this development, according to a proposal by Columbia city councilman Cameron Runyan, is the issue of the homeless population in and around the city. Runyan stated, “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.…What I see is a giant risk to business.”

Runyan has put together a proposal suggesting that the City of Columbia move its homeless shelter as far as 15 miles from downtown. Runyan’s strategy gives the homeless three options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail, or leave Columbia.

Similar efforts to have people who are homeless removed from cities have long failed, although they continue to be tried. A popular method is offering one-way tickets out of town to homeless people, which is currently being proposed in Hawaii and has been conducted in New York City, Baton Rouge and San Francisco. Many cities that have big events have often work to find avenues to move homeless people out of view of tourists; notably, in the City of Indianapolis in 2012, local police efforts concentrated on clearing the streets of homeless people for the Super Bowl. Cities like Tampa and Portland are also pursuing plans similar to Columbia’s, and other cities are becoming more aggressive, with the police in Raleigh threatening to arrest volunteers at a homeless shelter for supplying homeless people with food over the weekend.

Homeless advocates in Columbia and throughout the country are outraged at the plan being proposed by Runyan. Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), called Columbia’s plan “an extreme, highly disturbing example.” In 2011, the NLCHP noted that cities were increasingly enacting prohibitions against activities like panhandling and loitering. Researchers have questioned the efficacy of such tactics. Robert Adelman, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo, stated, “These kinds of proposals are happening more and more around the country, but to me, all of these ordinances and policies just redistribute homeless persons. They don’t solve the problem of homelessness. You can’t jail people out of homelessness.”

In Columbia, some business owners agree, standing contrary to Runyan’s proposal. Lori Brown, who owns House of Fabrics in downtown Columbia, stated, “People complain more about parking,” believing that the city may be misplacing its efforts.—John Brothers

  • Tasasha

    The criminalization of homelessness is despicable. Instead of addressing the lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs, unemployment, health care access and costs, domestic violence, and mental health, all problems that can lead to homelessness, Columbia S.C. chooses to exile and imprison people. This also illustrates how often these “quality of life” laws against loitering, public urination, and other no-harm behaviors, actually target homeless and other marginalized populations. Why is our country so intent on “solving” structural issues like homelessness, poverty and unemployment with prison. Is it because of who these issues disproportionately impact, people of color, LGBTQ communiites, poor people?

  • Jen

    How will this solve the problem of impoverished peoples? Moving them away will not help. Also the majority of homeless people are children. This is disgusting.

  • Jarmo

    My town of 130000 people took a different path to help solve the lack of affordable housing for long-term homeless persons. While we, too, tried to build a shelter on the outskirts of town, that was enjoined in court, because it didn’t give the homeless equal access–and as Columbia will find, moving the problem doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, we got local landlords, including our biggest provider of housing for disadvantaged persons, Avalon Housing, to offer two-year rent vouchers. There was a federal grant attached, but the overall cost was far less than building a new, distant structure and also far less cost than the attendant social disruption.

  • Paul

    This is just one step away from concentration camps for “those who we do not want to see”. Building a structure on the outskirts of town, where the “undesirables” are forced to live is, in fact, exactly what the Nazis did to Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and to people with mental and physical disabilities. We all know what began as concentration camps for their “undesirables”.soon became death camps.

    Of course that couldn’t happen here, we wouldn’t treat our people like that. After all, we are civilized people living in an enlightened country. We are the leaders of the free world. We teach others what is right and just and fair. All we are doing is isolating those who spoil the look of the place, so that we can show the world our perfection.


    This is a balancing act. Business needs to thrive in order for the city to have money needed to help the homeless. Homeless people are often not at fault for their situation. If a drug addict or drunk is homeless it is understood that they caused their homelessness. However a person who is not a druggie or a drunk who has tried hard and lost their job should be helped. A family with people who have fallen on hard times due to the housing crash, foreclosure or other crisis should be helped not shuttled to some concentration camp on the edge of the city. Drug addicts and drunks are essentially criminals so putting them in prison like areas is a valid mechanism to help them.
    However families whose members are all drug free people down on their luck should be treated with the same respect we give those who have homes. A druggie or a drunk made a conscious choice to throw their lives away the moment that took that first drink or the first illegal drug so I have ZERO compassion for them. A family that lost its primary breadwinners job to NAFTA, the financial meltdown, great ressession or other economic forces beyond its control deserves and has my infinite compassion. The people I don’t feel sorry for are the stinking nasty drug addicted drunk bums who beg for money aggressively on so many urban streets.
    It should be against the law to feed drunks or drug addicted bums. When a drunk or drug addict sobers up only then should they be helped to rebuild their lives. Giving help to a dope addict or drunk is like throwing money into the sewer it is juts wasted. I’m all for helping recoving addicts and recovering alcoholic homeless but not till they take the first step of ending their substance abuse. I have 13 disabilities and autism. I was abused severely as a child. I had to fight all sorts of antisocial issues growing up and I never sunk to choosing to abuse drugs or booze. Yes I am disabled but trust me the dope dealer was not precious he would have sold his filth to me had I made that horrid retrograde choice to kill myself with his wares.
    With all my challenges I knew that choosing drugs and booze would only may my already bad situation much much worse. Drug addiction is a choice. Becoming a drunk is also a choice. It is about time we stop rewarding addicts for making bad choices because; they are NOT babies. Let’s stop treating drunks and dope addicts like babies. Let’s focus on helping working poor and poor people who ended up homeless by no fault of their own.