In the city of Columbia, South Carolina, tensions are mounting after the Columbia City Council voted unanimously to ban homeless citizens from its city center. Their plan, Emergency Homeless Response, mandates that homeless persons must be evacuated from the downtown business district or face arrest.
The plan includes operating an emergency winter shelter 24 hours a day from September to March of next year. The shelter was previously slated to operate from November to March; the emergency response includes two additional months.
The city’s riverfront winter shelter can accommodate 240 people. The homeless population of Richland County is estimated at 1,518 this year.
According to The State, “Columbians have debated the ‘homeless issue’ for nearly two decades in a city where on some days the homeless rival the number of shoppers, diners and pedestrians on key downtown streets.” But the City Council’s extreme decision has invoked ire from many who believe their mandate criminalizes the homeless and violates their constitutional rights.
Controversially, the Council’s plan includes increased police patrols in the 36-block business district and at the riverfront shelter. If the homeless refuse to evacuate downtown and relocate to the shelter, they face arrest “under a range of public nuisance laws that include loitering, public intoxication, public urination, aggressive panhandling or trespassing.”
Attorney, former state senator, and political activist Tom Turnipseed said Friday that a federal lawsuit will be filed. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Columbia’s Appleseed Legal Justice Center are expected to help, if not join in the suit.
“Police are not supposed to coerce people into behavior,” Susan Dunn, the legal director of South Carolina’s Charleston-based ACLU chapter told The State. “The whole nexus of the relationship between law enforcement and the citizen is that… they have to have reasonable suspicion of a crime.”
“The underlying design is that they want the homeless not to be visible in downtown Columbia,” Dunn continued. “You can shuttle them somewhere or you can go to jail. That’s, in fact, an abuse of power.”
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.