West Columbia leaders discuss homelessness issues and potential solutions at forum

By Natalie Szrajer
Posted 11/27/23

West Columbia leaders concerned with issues surrounding homelessness, within the city and in surrounding areas, decided it was time to talk about the problem last week.

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West Columbia leaders discuss homelessness issues and potential solutions at forum


West Columbia leaders concerned with issues surrounding homelessness, within the city and in surrounding areas, decided it was time to talk about the problem last week.

The forum, held Nov. 20 at the Pineview Ruritan Club, featured representatives from the West Columbia Police Department and community outreach/support teams from the city and Prisma Health.

Ruritan member and West Columbia City Council Member Mike Green initiated the idea for the forum, having talked about the need to find ways to tackle the issue for 8-10 months. Snell said he spoke with people at Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran church near the Pineview Ruritan Club off Pella Avenue, which has been known to have homeless camps nearby.

The two said they also spoke with other community members, and the idea for the forum took shape.

West Columbia Police Chief Marion Boyce began the event by explaining the need to “focus on outreach for people with mental health and substance abuse issues, the biggest we deal with on the street.”

Boyce later said that sometimes mental health and substance abuse can mix with homelessness, adding that “homelessness is not a crime” although some of the “byproducts” of homelessness are criminal.

These compounding issues become difficult to tackle, the chief said.

Boyce told the small crowd in attendance that his department has applied for a class through the National Association of Social Work Symposium for his officers to be better prepared to deal with problems related to homelessness.

The chief went on to explain that from a police department standpoint West Columbia is dense with population and has people constantly traveling through it to get to other places, as well as driving through the area on nearby interstates.

“The byproducts of bringing more people means more crime,” Boyce said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of combatting that.”

While the chief said it’s hard to track people, especially with large areas of vacant woods along Augusta Road, he added that the department has used drone technology to assess the area in addition to using events like September’s Meeting Street Music Fest to get an idea of the types of people in the city.

Boyce said the department can access cell phone data from people at events who use apps and have given permission to be accessible to the public. For instance, the cheif said officers can see that a white female was at the music festival, emphasizing they can’t otherwise see these specific details about an individual person.

“Why can’t we use that for homelessness?” Boyce asks. “We can geofence that area. We can’t see exact spots but it does give us a better understanding.”

“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you go to jail,” he added. “Jail is not the answer to a lot of issues. We are looking at societal issues tonight.”

Sophie Sumpter and Erin Flaxman also spoke. They’re social workers with the West Columbia Outreach team providing primarily phone and text support to those needing support and resources. The calls and texts are free and confidential.

Sumpter said homeless people often have cell phones, but without mobile data access they need Wi-Fi to connect. 

“How can we meet them where they are?” Sumpter offered. “We create a text line to get in touch with them. We also try to strengthen relationships with community partners and plug resources to them.”

She said one homeless person they worked with was a sexual assault victim, and they were able to connect the person to an organization that helps such victims. Those seeking support in West Columbia can receive it by texting (803) 216-5092 or calling (803) 939-8624 for support. There is no charge.

Prisma Health’s Krystle Holmes-Gay, a licensed social worker, covers multiple counties across the state including Richland and Lexington, visiting homeless campsites with a team. 

“These are my people because I used to be homeless,” said Holmes-Gay, explaining that this was before coming to South Carolina and getting her master’s in social work. “I meet people where they are and connect them with resources.”

She showed pictures of campsites and said the sites often “go deep” into the woods, adding that there are campsites far back in the woods behind the Wendy’s along Augusta Rd.

Holmes-Gay said she and her team “are here when you are ready,” adding that some people refuse help. They have different resources available for housing and other needs, but they often have to abide by the U.S. Housing & Urban Development Department’s definition of homeless, which she says doesn’t include people who “couch surf” or go from one friend/family member’s home to the next. 

Asked by a person in the crowd if they should contact the city police or her if they see or know someone who is homeless, Holmes-Gay said people can contact her or an officer depending on the situation and if they perceive safety as an issue.

West Columbia Mayor Tem Miles was in attendance and spoke up at this point.

“If you see a situation that needs immediate change, please call both law enforcement and our outreach team,” he said.

Boyce also echoed this sentiment.

“I would greatly appreciate your calls to the police department,” the chief said. “It might not get solved immediately but it will get pushed to outreach.”

As to whether there will be more forums on homelessness in the future, ruritan members said that’s up in the air.


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