Update: Contrary to popular media reports, including Columbia's daily The State, Eva Moore of the Free Times reports that Columbia City Council did not vote to create an edge-of-town "retreat." However, they did vote to open the downtown "winter shelter" earlier then usual on Sept. 15 and noted that the retreat was still on the table, but it had to be discussed further.
Recently, South Carolina's capital city got a good bit of buzz in the national media. No, it wasn't because Columbia finally made it onto one of those fancy lists that are enjoyed by the bored upper-middle classers planning a vacation, but rather because the city took the first steps in a wildly reactionary plan to deal with the "problem" of the hundreds of homeless on its streets.
That plan, put forth by City Councilman Cameron Runyan and unanimously approved by City Council, gives the homeless of Columbia three options: seek refuge at a shelter (as far away from downtown as possible, of course), go to jail, or leave town. While Mr. Runyan certainly believes that his plan will help the homeless, it is safe to say that his real goal is protecting the interests of downtown business owners. When Councilman Runyan tweeted "doing nothing is not an option," he was partially right. Unfortunately, his "something" is the wrong thing to do.
According to a story in The New York Times, Runyon sees the homeless "problem" in Columbia as "a giant risk to business." Or as he told WIS-TV, "[Commerce] 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." Runyan, it should be noted, is a Democrat, albeit one espousing a policy so repressive that even Columbia's police chief is uncomfortable with enforcing it. Talking to The State, interim Chief Ruben Santiago went so far as to say, "We can't just take people to somewhere they don't want to go. I can't do that. I won't do that."
At least in Columbia the homeless have an advocate in the police department. In Detroit, the American Civil Liberties Union has accused law enforcement of illegally rounding up the homeless, transporting them several miles outside of the city center, and leaving them to their own devices, far removed from whatever shelter they might be accustomed to. This sort of behavior makes New York City's policy of buying airline tickets for homeless people look positively benign.
Meanwhile, last week in Raleigh, N.C., the police threatened to arrest community groups who were feeding the homeless. However, Mayor Nancy McFarlane stepped up and said that this policy was not sanctioned by the city. She also noted that the city of Raleigh should be assisting, not preventing, the efforts of those who wish to provide food to the city's homeless.
Over on the West Coast, the mayor of Portland, Ore., is not nearly as generous as his counterpart in Raleigh. Although Portland has a homeless population less than Columbia's — even though the city's metro population is five times greater — they have crafted their own plan to criminalize homelessness. In Portland, they simply made "camping" in public spaces illegal — the same tactic used to disrupt various Occupy movements around the country. Arrests are underway.
Of course, we can at least count on the wonderful world of technology to solve the "problem" of the homeless on our city streets. Futurist and TED talker/writer Ayesha Khanna spoke to an interviewer last year about an innovative technological solution to the "problem" of the homeless. Speaking about her favorite topic, "augmented reality," Khanna told interviewer Brian Leher, "If you decide you don't like homeless people in your city, you use this software and implant it in your contact lenses, then you won't see them at all." So much for a technological solution to one of society's biggest problems. This should also give those folks who breathlessly hype TED talks plenty of pause.
By now, you may have noticed that this column contains an abundance of quotation marks, and not just because of the number of quotes being used. The reason for this is because the "problem" of homelessness is one that more and more cities seem to be dealing with at best, terribly, and at worst, in the most draconian fashion possible. Homelessness is an issue that deserves more than just an "out of sight, out of mind" solution, and it certainly should involve input from those very people that it purports to help.
All too often, though, the homeless are simply shut out of the equation, and the "solution" is one that simply allows everyone to breathe easier, knowing they won't be confronted with the grim reminder of America's increasing wealth inequality. After all, we can't have good times if there are constant reminders of bad times at every corner.