“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
When Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist pick pockets and steal food to eat, theater audiences pull shamelessly for the young street urchins. And no one who has ever seen a Robin Hood movie — whether with Errol Flynn, Cary Elwes or Kevin Costner in the title role — finds himself not wanting Robin to stick it to the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. These characters — destitute, hungry, forced from their homes by circumstances beyond their control — are, after all, sympathetic.
But there is a substantial difference between seeing this kind of action in a theater and living with it in your own city. While there is no direct correlation between homelessness and crime, and a recently released report from the Columbia Police Department indicates that homeless people commit less than two percent of the city’s overall violent and property crimes, all is not rosy.
“According to statistics, from January to June 2012, there were approximately 500 crimes committed by homeless people,” says Jennifer Timmons, spokesperson for the City of Columbia Police Department. “Violent crimes ranging from armed robbery, a bomb threat, murder and burglary were allegedly committed by folks with no permanent address. Other offenses include aggressive panhandling, begging, public urination and defecation — since there aren’t a lot of restrooms available to the homeless — and urban camping.”
The record indicates that, during the first six months of this year, 330 men or women were charged with various crimes and either issued tickets for their offenses or lodged at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center at a cost of nearly $35,000. If those tickets are paid, the money goes into the city coffers. However, often the suspect simply ignores the ticket, resulting in the court issuing a bench warrant. This costs the city valuable resources in court administration costs, police officer salaries and the time it takes to look for someone who knows he or she is wanted. Even without court costs calculated in, the homeless took up 375 hours of officers’ time, totaling about $4,600 in salaries. Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott calls these numbers “staggering.”
It may be of some relief that a map compiled by David Parker, PhD, a research assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the U.S.C. School of Medicine, shows most of the incidents referenced in the police department’s report cluster around an area of the city bounded by Lady, Elmwood, Sumter and Park streets. David’s research emphasis is on homelessness and barriers to individual or group care services.
Unfortunately, within those boundaries are Finlay Park and downtown Columbia. Finlay Park has long been a hotbed of illegal activity prompting noise complaints, extra police patrols and the closing of its exit gate onto Gadsden Street in an effort to control large teenage crowds.
In July 2012, more than 100 bicyclists and walkers gathered near Finlay Park to inaugurate the opening of the first section of the Vista Greenway, a converted railway tunnel that connects Lady and Taylor streets. The tunnel, phase one of a multiphase project, was renovated at a cost of $176,000, which came from a combination of city hospitality taxes, a grant from Bikes Belong, private donations and funding from the Vista Guild. By August, some users were reportedly staying away from the tunnel because of the presence of homeless people loitering inside.
In mid 2011, City Council, working in conjunction with the City Center Partnership, passed an ordinance to establish the City Center Business Improvement District. Its boundaries are Assembly, Marion, Elmwood and Gervais streets. Business owners within those blocks pay an annual assessment earmarked for improvements to keep property values from falling. Yet, they are often less than one block away from a growing number of people who have nowhere to live, eat or go to the restroom.
Increasing the focus on downtown Columbia is the fact that other local agencies have not seen a similar rise in crime rates for offenses committed by homeless people. Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts says his department and the Lexington County Detention Center began keeping detailed records in July 2011 concerning whether a person whom deputies encounter or whom correctional officers book at the detention center is homeless. In July 2011, the Sheriff’s Department implemented a new, comprehensive records management system. “Deputies and officers can document whether a person is homeless when they prepare the incident report and booking report electronically,” Sheriff Metts says.
Sheriff’s Department records do not show that there has been an increase in criminal activity involving homeless persons since July 2011. Between July 2011 and September 2012, officers with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department and Detention Center dealt with a total of 52 homeless persons, the sheriff says. Many of them were booked at the detention center by officers with the Sheriff’s Department and other municipal, state and federal law enforcement agencies. “Since July 2011, Lexington County deputies have arrested a total of 21 homeless persons on various misdemeanor offenses,” Sheriff Metts says.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says they also keep statistics on homelessness but have seen no increase in crime in general related to homeless individuals. The Sheriff says approximately 600 names are listed in their database linked to crime, either as a victim or a suspect, in Richland County.
Neither the Greenville or Charleston police departments keep detailed records on crimes committed by homeless people. In Greenville, a suspect must give a physical address in order to be released from detention. Charleston Police spokesperson Charles Francis, says, “We don’t characterize a suspect as a college student, a lawyer, or a doctor, so we don’t note if they’re homeless either.”
On a brighter note, the much-referenced report from the Columbia Police Department might not indicate as drastic a rise in crimes committed by the homeless as it does at first glance, but rather an increased focus on enforcement. “We are making more arrests because of increased patrols and more officers on the streets. We also address residents’ concerns to us regarding the homeless. Citizens are reporting more crimes overall by calling CPD and Crimestoppers,” says spokesperson Jennifer Timmons.
The police chief stressed in his public comments that it’s important to mention that not all homeless persons commit crimes, and most importantly, a law enforcement response is not the key to solving a social services problem. “This is not just a police department issue. It’s a city-wide topic that is being discussed between various agencies. The Columbia Police Department has meetings with other organizations to address the homelessness situation, places like Transitions, Salvation Army, churches and other quality of life groups,” says Chief Scott.
“The hope, collectively, is to possibly have one centralized area to serve the homeless. Our specialized units such as PACE (Pro-active Community Enforcement) and Bike Patrol talk with the homeless population as an education awareness effort. Of course, we do regular patrols.”
Often for law enforcement, it’s an uphill battle. Libraries and parks are public spaces where people of every socioeconomic persuasion are allowed to gather, so simply sweeping away homeless people is unconstitutional. On the other hand, officers are sworn to uphold laws against loitering, vagrancy and panhandling especially in the face of public complaints. “CPD and the city are not hiding from the homelessness concerns. We are trying to collectively address the concerns while respecting human life,” Jennifer says.
Other area law enforcement officials agree. “The issue of homelessness is one that must be addressed in a comprehensive way,” Sheriff Metts says. “Law enforcement has a role, but social service agencies, churches, local governments and other groups also have a role in addressing the issue. Issues and concerns with homeless persons cannot be effectively addressed by law enforcement alone since law enforcement officers do not have the ability to address the root causes of why a person is homeless.”
It’s a sentiment Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott shares. “Any issues facing our community have to be looked at holistically. Everyone — citizens, faith-based groups, businesses, non-profits and so on — has equity in what happens in our community. If we’re going to continue to make Richland County a great place to live, work and play, the solution has got to involve everyone.”
What Help is Available Now?
While the Charleston Police Department may not keep detailed statistics on homelessness, Stacy Denaux, executive director of Crisis Ministries in Charleston, keeps her finger on the pulse of the issue in the Lowcountry. She says she hasn’t noticed an increase in the number of people incarcerated. “But maybe our police department and city have a different way of looking at it.”
“Charleston relies on tourism, so we can’t really have people sleeping in public spaces. I think we have other ways to deal with that rather than giving them a ticket, which probably won’t be paid. Then they’ll issue a bench warrant and put them in jail for 30 days. What have you accomplished then? If you have someone who’s actively working on changing their homeless status, you’ve probably put them back at square one,” Stacy says.
In the Midlands, Christ Central Ministries is one of the go to organizations for helping the homeless. Stu Rodman, an executive at Ambac International in the Midlands, chairs the board. The statewide organization not only assists homeless people in crisis, but also conducts research and Christian higher education and missions training.
Like everyone, he noticed an uptick in homelessness when the Great Recession hit. And while stories abound about middle-class, paycheck-to-paycheck Americans suddenly finding themselves in soup kitchen lines, Stu sees all homeless as people first, then people who need help.
“In my experience,” Stu says, “people tend to divide into one of three categories: people with mental and physical impairments — people who used to be institutionalized; people who have hit bottom, but are receptive to change; and people who have not hit bottom and are not receptive to change. It hasn’t changed much except for those people who have lost their optimism, but in the end will get back on track.”
And the lack of optimism is understandable. A Pew Research Center Report released in August 2012 showed the net worth of America’s middle class has shrunk by as much as 30 percent. The math is simple: with middle America responsible for the vast majority of both tax and charitable giving contributions, those who rely on government services or private donations for sustenance and housing will only suffer more.
But is unemployment, in and of itself, a central contributor in homelessness? According to Stu, only in a limited number of cases. “You have some people, many people on the street who are unemployable. They are mentally ill or abuse alcohol or drugs, so you can’t say in those instances that unemployment is the main driver.”
Columbia boasts 15 shelters that aid the homeless, most of them — including the Oliver Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army — within blocks of Finlay Park and the yet-to-be-developed Bull Street property that city officials and developers hope to be a boon for the local economy. Some might say Columbia is a victim of its own success since most assistance lies within incorporated limits. There are food banks in places like Pelion and Blythewood, but certainly not the comprehensive services located downtown. Still, it’s a system that Jeff Koob, longtime mental health professional and homeless advocate, calls a band aid, especially when you consider the root causes and the stigma that suppresses a compassionate public response.
Because of all the services Columbia offers through government-run shelters and those run by churches and non-profits, some say the city has become a magnet for the homeless. That’s a touchy subject for Stacy Denaux. “I’ve seen law enforcement officials who say, ‘If I didn’t have a homeless shelter in my city, I wouldn’t have homeless people.’ My response to that is, ‘So, if you didn’t have high schools in your town, you wouldn’t have high school dropouts?’ One doesn’t cause the other.”
But how about crime itself? Stu says he doesn’t see a great correlation between crime and homelessness. Jeff, who has worked with convicted criminals can see how a desperate person might become a modern day Oliver Twist. “The two things that come to mind are the plot of Les Miserables and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Peoples’ moral behavior and ethical standards change when basic needs are unmet. A starving man will do things he’d never imagined when he took food for granted, just as a drug addict will to meet an immediate perceived need. A person who has no sense of where they ‘belong’ has an existential dilemma, as surely as a starving person. Who knows what one might resort to if one didn’t know how to keep from being rained on or how to feed one’s family?”
What Can Be Done Better?
With regard to crime, the vast number committed by homeless people in Columbia are things like loitering and going to the bathroom in public. For society, these types of things are a false positive: if the community did a better job of providing services that meet basic needs of the homeless, then perhaps homeless people wouldn’t be forced to break the law simply to sleep or answer the call of nature.
But Chief Scott, Sheriffs Lott and Metts, Stu, Stacy and Jeff all agree that government alone is not the answer. “You know,” Stu says, “de Toqueville defined what America was like in its early days, and he said when people were helping people, it worked well because the people giving the help did so willingly and those receiving the help also got a personal bond. When you insert government in the middle of it, you have to tax someone to help somebody else. They don’t like it and the people being helped lack that personal bond.”
Both Jeff and Stu refer to government as a final “safety net,” a concept developed under Roosevelt and the New Deal. “There are admittedly many example of excesses and waste in the resultant welfare system,” Jeff says, “but the WIC program for infant nutrition has indisputably saved taxpayers money in the long term, and I believe that Head Start is another example of a successful government initiative to help the disadvantaged. As to homelessness, Section 8 housing programs and local programs that integrate services for the homeless at a central location can make a difference.”
But to address the massive problem, says Jeff, society has to look at the root causes of homelessness and find ways of dealing with them – like restoring preventive services for the mentally ill, dealing more effectively with substance abuse as a public health problem rather than as a crime (i.e. prevention and treatment), and increasing the number of licensed group homes and other residential options for the mentally ill.
“What governments shouldn’t do is to build more prisons to house non-violent offenders. It costs a lot more to incarcerate people than to povide preventive/treatment services,” Jeff concludes.
Stu maintains that one size doesn’t fit all. “You almost have to customize a solution and put people in groups. If somebody has a mental illness, they have to be put in a different group than a person who lost a job and is on their back. First we have to see what people need to see how we can help them.”
During a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Hedrick Smith, NY Times columnist and best-selling author said, “As long as ‘they’ rather than ‘we’ is the pronoun that solves the problem, the problem will never get solved.” While in South Carolina, homelessness is addressed community by community, perhaps it’s time for a statewide approach. North Carolina is in the midst of a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness. Identifying and supporting implementation strategies to end homelessness are the work of the North Carolina Interagency Coordinating Council for Homeless Programs. This body advises the governor and the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services on issues affecting people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
In the meantime, the “we” part also includes Columbians doing their part to prevent or report offenses. Certain people will commit crime whether they are homeless or living in a half-million dollar house.
Analytical people realize that the best way to solve any problem is first to quantify it. Anecdotes rarely help the police. “Jane said she heard from Tom that he knows somebody who said the bike tunnel is riddled with homeless people,” is not evidence of a crime. People who witness crimes — including things like panhandling and loitering — need to report it. If the police do nothing more than dispatch a car to find someone who is long gone, at least there’s a record of it, and a metric by which to measure what police resources get spent and how.
“We always remind citizens to be aware of their surroundings, and not to leave car doors unlocked,” Jennifer says. “Use good common sense. Don’t walk alone at night carrying valuables; don’t offer rides to strangers. Call 911 or the Columbia Police Department about suspicious persons in an area. We discourage residents from taking matters in their own hands. It’s best to call the police if or before a crime occurs.”