Homeless people are under attack again, this time in Columbia, South Carolina. Last week, in a move to keep homeless advocates from feeding the homeless in public parks, the city started levying a fee for use of publicly owned spaces. Food Not Bombs has been feeding the homeless in Columbia’s parks for over a decade. Now they may see their mercy mission forced to end.
Judith Turnipseed, a Columbia organizer with Food Not Bombs said they are a non-profit. “We’re just a group of people who come to the park…” to share food with the homeless and anyone else that is hungry says Turnipseed. FNB services roughly 25 people each time it comes to a public space in their efforts to feed the hungry. The new regulation would require the group to request a permit 15 days before each meal and would cost $120.00.
The city says the regulation was not meant to be aimed at specific classes of people, but rather provide improved public space use for everyone in Columbia. Acknowledging that there are groups that use the facilities without advance notice, the city’s director of parks, Jeff Caton, claimed the ordinance was meant to make sure the trash cans are emptied and bathrooms are clean before any group uses it.
FNB intends to keep feeding the homeless and are considering legal action against the city. FNB has tried speaking with Caton, and other city officials, but without luck. Columbia has taken controversial steps against the homeless in the past.
In August 2013, an ordinance was passed that criminalized homelessness. Homeless people were given the choice of either relocating to a shelter outside of town or go to jail. Following a public outcry, the city back pedaled and revoked the ordinance. The plan, put into motion by Cameron Runyan, was passed unanimously by Columbia City Council.
Under the ordinance, law enforcement were assigned to patrol the downtown and keep homeless people out. They were told by the police chief to strictly enforce the city’s quality of life laws which includes bans on loitering and public urination. A hotline was established so that residents could report the presence of a homeless person to law enforcement.
Homeless violators were to be taken to a shelter outside of the city limits. With 240 beds, the shelter could only accommodate one-sixth of the city’s homeless population. Once a person arrived at the shelter, they were not allowed to leave the grounds. A police officer was stationed on the road leading to the shelter to make sure that homeless people didn’t start wandering towards town again.
The choice for the 1,500 homeless people in Columbia would be either get arrested or confined to a shelter that they couldn’t leave, making the shelter a pseudo-jail. One source said the shelter was like the county poor farms that were prominent in the Midwest in the 1930s and 1940s.
Columbia isn’t alone in its anti-homeless attitude. During the first week of February, amidst some of the most brutal weather New York City has seen in years, officials started ticketing people who were trying to escape the bad weather by going to the subway system. Miami, Tampa and Palo Alto have also passed ordinances this year making it illegal to be homeless inside city limits.
Meanwhile, in Columbia, FNB continues to serve those who are homeless and anyone else that is hungry.
By Jerry Nelson