Editorial | Prison cells not the place to fight homelessness

09/04/2013 3:59 PM

09/04/2013 4:00 PM

This editorial appeared Sunday in the Florence Morning News

Homelessness is a problem in South Carolina, and most everywhere else in this country for that matter, but how much of a problem depends entirely on perception.

If you work in the soup kitchens, shelters or nonprofits helping the homeless, you see the problem firsthand. But if you don’t think about homelessness, if you tilt your head a certain way and squint your eyes, you could go on day after day and pretend it is never there.

Some homeless would prefer it that way. Many live in shadows, making them hard for people to find, which is why they do it. Some have too much pride. Others live in fear of their own security or authorities.

However a law recently adopted in Columbia is bringing the issue out of the darkness and into the (blue) light.

The Columbia City Council, in a piece of nimby (not in my backyard) legislation, recently decided to criminalize the homeless, saying they would no longer be allowed to loiter, sleep or eat on the area’s downtown streets. The homeless would be given the choice to either go to a remote shelter or get arrested, a plan the city’s interim police chief is reportedly reluctant to carry out.

The lone shelter on the edge of town participating in this plan accommodates 240 clients – including recently released inmates – on a given night, a fraction of the town’s estimated 1,600 homeless people. And once a homeless person arrives, they will not be permitted to leave without permission, and a police officer will be stationed nearby to make sure they don’t return to the 36-block downtown area. Officials there think the measure will spur more commerce to downtown businesses.

So much for Southern hospitality, right?

The statute is expected to be challenged. Critics say while homeless people have lost their housing, their means, their way of life, they have not lost their civil rights.

So while the legality of criminalizing a homeless person might be murky, what is clear is that this rug-sweeping ordinance only whitewashes the real issue. Homeless people need links to social services and job training to combat their station in life, not links in their handcuffs.

People do not choose to be homeless; they want a better existence but may not have the resources to do so. Some have been whacked with trauma – family situations, health problems, little education, substance abuse, criminal history or other issues. Then there are the new faces of the homeless population, those that lost their job, home or transportation in the wake of the Great Recession. These losses have a snowballing effect, trapping many in a cycle that can be hard to break.

In Florence, the South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless estimates there are about 228 homeless people. However, due to their transient nature, officials agree the number is likely much higher.

Florence has agencies and shelters to help curb the problem here, but they are limited, overbooked and understaffed.

There is no template to combat homelessness. Enlarging underfinanced rental assistance programs could help, but there needs to be a pragmatic, multi-faceted approach to fixing the issue. It needs to be a liaison effort with support from a number of entities.

But to solve it, there must be clear recognition and it must be taken head on. Turning your head and sweeping the problem to the side will only make it grow.

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