Atlantic Cities

The City Council of Columbia, South Carolina, Isn't Sure if it Voted to Kick Homeless People Out of Downtown Or Not

The City Council of Columbia, South Carolina, Isn't Sure if it Voted to Kick Homeless People Out of Downtown Or Not
FLICKR/Walmart

Last week we reported that the city council in Columbia, South Carolina, had essentially outlawed homelessness by passing an "Emergency Homeless Response" plan that gave homeless people in downtown Columbia one of two choices: They could be shuttled to a temporary winter shelter on the outskirts of town, or they could go to jail. It turns out that this is not true. Or, actually, it might be true. Basically, the Columbia City Council is not sure if it's true. 

The story goes like this: At an Aug. 13 city council meeting, Councilman Cameron Runyan introduced an "Emergency Homeless Response" plan on behalf of downtown business owners. The plan, which you can download here [PDF], has many provisions, one of which is the early opening of an emergency shelter on the outskirts of town; another provision empowers local police to remove all homeless people from the downtown area, either by shuttling them to the emergency shelter, or jailing them; a third provision calls for a partnership with a local ministry to help offset the cost of feeding and sheltering homeless people in the Columbia area. 

The very next day (Aug. 14), The State, Columbia's daily paper, reported that Runyan's entire plan had been approved by the council:

Council voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to endorse a plan driven by complaints from businesses and residents that homeless adults increasingly are upsetting homeowners, office workers, shoppers and tourists. That’s bad for commerce as well as neighborhood tranquility, they said.

Runyan’s plan – which drew attention from the New York Times and Al Jazeera America’s nightly news magazine – won all seven votes on council at about 2 a.m., near the end of a long, busy, contentious meeting.

The only person quoted in The State's article is Runyan.

Fast-forward to Aug. 21, when Columbia's alternative weekly, the Free Times, quoted council members not named Runyan claiming that they hadn't, in fact, voted for the Emergency Homeless Response: 

Council didn’t adopt Runyan’s entire plan outright, according to several council members and a draft of the approved resolution provided by the city clerk. Instead, they authorized the city manager to work on a contract with Christ Central Ministries to open the city shelter early, then bring it back to Council, and asked the police chief to “present his plan for downtown security.”

“We never approved … opening early, until we get some numbers,” says Councilman Moe Baddourah. “We never authorized [more police downtown]; it was always talked about as ‘The chief will come back with recommendations.’ We never passed a resolution that we’re going to force people or arrest people to go to the shelter.”

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine concurs: She says Council did not approve Runyan’s plan. 

On Aug. 22, the Free Times reported that the confusion stemmed from a motion made by Runyan to attempt to open the emergency shelter early, and to "engage" with Christ Central ministry to help run said shelter. Moments later Mayor Steve Benjamin (in Columbia, the mayor is a member of the council) restated the motion thusly: 

“It’s to move forward with the plan as presented, to also move forward with immediate implementation of the committee’s recommendations that are before us; to empower the manager to come back to us with a contract that will be presented to us on the 3rd for consideration; to give staff, CPD and everyone else the latitude to allow this to evolve in a meaningful way that allows us to provide input and proper oversight that we’re supposed to provide, but also the ability to adjust accordingly; and I think to in everything that we do from this point forward let’s make sure that we maintain a very open and aggressive spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and communication and we can get this done together.”

The council then voted unanimously, which in turn led Runyan to say they'd approved his entire plan. Since national media picked up the story, even more members have come forward to counter Runyan's claim of a unanimous vote on his entire Emergency Response Plan. In a feature published Wednesday, the Free Times reported that

[T]he only thing Council clearly approved that night is to try to open the shelter early. That’s backed up by both Runyan’s foes and his supporters. Councilman Brian Newman, a level-headed voice on the Council and a reliable ally of Runyan and Benjamin, says the only concrete action Council approved Aug. 13 was asking the city manager to negotiate a contract to open the shelter early. “My thought was, and I’m still pretty clear on this: We approved an emergency homeless plan that called for extension of hours for our emergency shelter,” Newman says. “There are also other elements that call for continued meetings, long-term planning.”

According to the Free Times, the council will meet on Sept. 3 to determine what exactly it voted for on Aug. 13.

Top image: Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is a member of the city council. FLICKR/Walmart

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion