Poverty Prison: SC Town Votes to Make Homelessness a Crime

Columbia, South Carolina demands homeless people go away or go to jail, police aren't sure.

In what critics say is the most comprehensive anti-homeless measure ever passed, Columbia, South Carolina's City Council has unanimously approved an "Emergency Homeless Response" plan under which patrolling police will remove unsightly homeless people from downtown under the aegis of the city's "quality of life" laws - complete with a hotline so business owners can report the presence of any aforementioned unsightly etc - and take them to a shelter on the outskirts of town where more patrolling police will ensure they don't up and wander back downtown.

If they refuse to be taken, they will be arrested and taken to jail. If they try to leave the shelter, they will be returned to pseudo-jail. To justify this grotesque criminalizing of homelessness, business leaders explained in lengthy impact statements that the presence of homeless people in the city center made it "virtually impossible to create a sustainable business model," which you'd think would be enough to throw all those people into jail or at least pseudo-jail.

Columbia's bill is part of a nation trend, as Think Progress notes:

Columbia’s move mirrors an unfortunate trend sweeping cities across the country: criminalizing homelessness. Already this year, cities as disparate as Miami and Tampa to Palo Alto have passed various ordinances making it virtually illegal to be homeless inside city limits.

Still, there are problems with Coilumbia's new rules. The shelter only has 240 beds, and there are over 1,500 homeless people. The shelter would only operate in winter. Both homeless advocates and the ACLU are considering bringing lawsuits. Courts are increasingly ruling against similar measures against the homeless. And even Columbia's acting police chief is balking by inexplicably and admirably noting that “homelessness is not a crime."


“I think there are some misconceptions out there that police are going to go out there and scoop up the homeless...I’ve got to have the legal right (to question or arrest anyone.) We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that."

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