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Hand in hand with the homeless

United Methodists work for humane homeless policies in Columbia

By Jessica Connor

COLUMBIA—United Methodists are among a large group standing in solidarity with homeless brothers and sisters after a monthlong firestorm of rumor and speculation about a crackdown on that population in Columbia.

Many in Columbia were outraged last month after the Columbia City Council approved moving forward on discussion about new strict emergency homeless response efforts in the city. The language was confusing to many, who thought the council had actually approved Councilman Cameron Runyan s plan to implement harsh rules guiding loitering, panhandling and the places homeless people can and cannot be in the city. The council only approved further discussion on the plan.

The original plan was things such as they couldn t leave the shelter unless they had permission, and the perceived intent was to have homeless people be given the option of getting arrested, going to the shelter or getting out of Columbia. And when you put it that way, obviously there was a lot of uproar,  said Brandon Lazarus, pastoral intern at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church, Columbia. It brought a lot of awareness to the issue in Columbia, but also unfortunately pitted many downtown business owners against the homeless and homeless advocates. 

Also concerning to many were aspects of the plan such as an out-of-town homeless facility, increased police patrols and a hotline for people to call when they see someone homeless.

Dialogue turned volatile; social media, news blogging and other conversation escalated. Many participated in a peaceful loiter-in  protest downtown wearing the letter H  in support for homeless neighbors.

Over the last month, the city council clarified that the plan was not approved, that it was merely being discussed, and on Sept. 3, the council went forward with what some call a more compassionate proposal in a motion by Mayor Steve Benjamin. Key in that proposal is a decision to open the city s winter homeless shelter early “ it now will run seven months, from Sept. 24 to April 15, and be open not only at night but all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition, the council plans to request proposals from the community for a more comprehensive long-term solution for the plight of Columbia s homeless individuals and families “ anything from year-round shelters to a centralized location for nonprofits to provide relief services. The request for proposals has not yet been called, but they will be due to the city Jan. 2, and churches, nonprofits and individual advocates are encouraged to put their heads together and develop a good plan for the city. United Methodists are among those working toward a plan.

The silver lining in the aftermath of this has been the new awareness many in the Midlands have about our homeless brothers and sisters, Lazarus said.

When the uproar started after the first council meeting, Trenholm Road UMC started holding a worship service for the homeless and others at Finlay Park, a popular place where many homeless go for rest. The Rev. Mike Smith preaches a short homily, reads Scripture and serves Communion for all gathered. The first service was so moving the church decided to hold the service regularly to be in solidarity with homeless brothers and sisters, Lazarus said.

For those living on the streets, their whole life is vulnerable “ from the elements, from the looks, from the stereotypes “ and out of that vulnerability comes this longing for community and this longing for God,

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