Police Oppose Criminalizing Homelessness In Columbia, South Carolina: 'I Can't Do That. I Won't Do That'

'I Can't Do That. I Won't Do That': S.C. Police Oppose Criminalizing Homelessness

A Southern city’s decision to criminalize homelessness has outraged a number of groups, including the police force that’s expected to implement it.

In a unanimous vote on Aug. 13, council members in Columbia, South Carolina decided that homeless people would no longer be allowed to loiter, sleep or eat on the area’s Downtown streets and would have the choice to either go to a remote shelter, or get arrested, an extreme plan that would require designated police officers to carry out. But the police chief and city manager are pushing back against the measure and are saying that they never agreed to the terms of the report, according to The State.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago told The State. “I’ve got to have the legal right (to question or take anyone into custody). We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”

Santiago and City manager Teresa Wilson said they did not authorize dispensing more cops to enforce what is outlined in the “Emergency Homeless Response” report.

The temporary solution, according to the report, is to transport any homeless person to a shelter that accommodates 240 clients, a facility that will also be home to recently released inmates. Additional police will be responsible for rounding up homeless people on the street and sending them to the shelter. Once the homeless occupants arrive, they will not be permitted to leave the premises without permission, and a police officer will be stationed nearby to make sure of it.

However, Councilman Cameron Runyan, the man behind the homelessness plan, says that everyone was in agreement on the night of the vote, a matter that will be cleared up only once the minutes are released during the next meeting in September.

Runyan also insists that his plan isn’t a “crackdown,” but rather a roadmap to eliminating the issue in the long-term and to improving businesses that he thinks are suffering because of the city’s homelessness issue.

"We have to understand that the only cure for poverty is commerce," Runyan told WISTV after the vote. "That is the only true response to poverty, to get people out of poverty. So if poverty is left unchecked, it will destroy commerce. So we've got to protect commerce to have a response to poverty."

But advocates have found a number of holes in Runyan’s plan, which includes the fact that the shelter the city would be shuttling the homeless people to can’t accommodate the estimated 1,621 people living on the streets of Columbia and the surrounding area.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty also pointed out in a 2011 report that providing adequate shelter is far cheaper that criminalizing homelessness.

Cost studies in 13 cities and states revealed that, on average, cities spend $87 per day to jail a person, and $28 per day for shelter.

But Santiago hasn’t given up on protesting the plan and will submit suggestions to the city manager next week.

“I think there are some misconceptions out there that police are going to go out there and scoop up the homeless,” Santiago told The State. “We want to make sure we’re doing things the legal, proper way.”

Before You Go

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

Organizations that help the homeless

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