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Columbia needs $30M for homeless services campus. State taxpayers could pitch in millions

In World
January 08, 2024

Columbia leaders’ hopes to create a “one-stop shop” for wraparound homeless services in the city while also relocating the Transitions Homeless Center and other services away from downtown might get a $10 million boost from the state.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced Friday he would ask for $10 million in the state budget to go toward a future “Hope Center” in Columbia — a campus dedicated to homeless residents complete with private rooms, medical care, addiction treatment, vital records help and more.

“To meet the growing demand for mental and behavioral health services, I am recommending an allocation of nearly $10 million to the Department of Mental Health for a public-private partnership with the City of Columbia and Richland County to pilot a comprehensive resource center with wraparound services to reduce homelessness in the Columbia area,” McMaster wrote.

McMaster is asking the state’s General Assembly to approve the $10 million and expects the city and/or Richland County to contribute the remaining $20 million needed for the project, according to the governor’s office.

Initially, however, Columbia does not plan to ask the county for help with the $20 million, Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann’s office confirmed. Instead, the city plans to hire consultants to help apply for federal grants, while also looking at public-private partnerships, which Rickenmann has frequently pushed.

“What we’re doing right now is short-term fixes,” Rickenmann previously said. “We cannot continue to do it fragmented. It is clearly not working.”

Rickenmann has pushed the idea for a separate campus for homeless services for at least the last year and has said the services currently available in the city are too spread out and isolated from each other.

City leaders have said moving homeless services into a hub would also help address crime and sanitation problems downtown.

A location for the would-be campus has not been determined. The governor’s office said an unoccupied Department of Mental Health building on Farrow Road might house the campus, but the city is still looking for a better location that doesn’t create another barrier for residents to access services, according to the mayor’s office.

The campus idea is not new, and the city hopes to model its program off of similar ones in Houston, Texas, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Researchers found that Houston’s recently opened Housing Navigation Center, which is part of longer-term efforts to curb homelessness in Houston, contributed to a 17% drop in unsheltered homeless residents during its first year of operating.

“We want to support the mayor,” Craig Currey, CEO of Columbia’s Transitions Homeless Center, previously told The State. “We’re interested in seeing how it all develops. … He has a broad vision for what needs to happen in the city.” But Currey added that Transitions, in downtown Columbia, has 260 beds and already has a slate of services for homeless residents, including medical and mental health providers.

Rickenmann has said he hopes the new campus would be able to hold up to 500 people in private rooms, but the Mayor’s Office Monday said there is not a site plan for the project and the actual number of would-be rooms is not yet known.

The city’s Rapid Shelter Columbia, a collection of 50 pallet shelters that opened in November 2022 near the Columbia Canal, was the first iteration of the city’s eventual goals, the mayor has said. The proposed Hope Center would also eventually replace Rapid Shelter Columbia and provide temporary shelter for more residents.

’A tipping point’

The city has also received some backlash for its work around addressing homelessness this year. The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina has accused the city of criminalizing homelessness, after the city passed a handful ordinances including one that makes possessing a stolen shopping cart a crime and another that bans the possession of drug paraphernalia.

Some groups have also opposed the city’s push to move meal programs for homeless residents indoors and out of public parks. The city has attempted to sway groups from providing meals on the street by launching a free communal kitchen program at Christ Central Church.

It is not currently illegal to provide meals to the homeless in public in Columbia, but Rickenmann has said the city could consider an ordinance if the groups providing food can’t be convinced to use the space at Christ Central.

“Right now, we’re at a tipping point where we’re between the unsheltered and the compassion people want to provide them, and the quality of life of citizens and businesses,” Rickenmann said at the time. “It’s teeter-tottering, and that’s not a good place to be.”

Rickenmann has frequently said that a centralized campus for homeless services would solve a variety of concerns, from problems with feeding residents on public property to the rates of crime on Elmwood Avenue.

The governor’s office said if the pilot program to launch the Hope Center in Columbia can successfully reduce the number of unsheltered homeless people in the state capital and help connect people with work and permanent housing, the state could pay to replicate the project in Greenville or Charleston.

“Columbia, our home and the state’s capital city, is witnessing historic progress through partnership,” Rickenmann wrote on social media to celebrate the news of the governor’s funding proposal. “We are elated to see $10 million included in the Governor’s Executive Budget for a new partnership to serve Columbia’s unsheltered population with wraparound services at the future HOPE Center. Thank you, Henry McMaster, for proposing this investment and for collaborating to truly make a difference. We hope to create a model through this pilot that can be replicated across the state.”

The state General Assembly must still approve the money.

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