Columbia set to open temporary shelter for the homeless Monday

COLUMBIA -- A temporary homeless shelter along the Congaree River about two miles from the development on Arsenal Hill will open Monday after city leaders rushed to build it before winter.

In addition to the $600,000 needed to build the shelter, city taxpayers will have to pay about $430,000 more to staff it, secure it, clean it and provide transportation.

The shelter, which city officials plan to use for up to three years before converting it for other purposes, consists of two 7,000-square-foot buildings.

The first building, a large open area for men, will open Monday. The second building, about one-third of which is walled off for women, will open a week from Monday, according to a city official.

The temporary shelter represents the city moving to a new strategy of focusing on alternative housing options rather than establishing a permanent homeless shelter.

That strategy has been at odds with some of the city's advocates for the homeless. They believe opening a permanent shelter that can provide multiple services to the homeless is the best way to tackle the problem.

"The city is doing the best they can with what they've got," said Mac Bennett, president and CEO of United Way of the Midlands, which funds several homeless initiatives. "Obviously, (the temporary shelter is) more expensive for them. I hope, in the long term, they direct some of those resources into a more permanent solution."

But Mayor Bob Coble and other city officials say it has been impossible to find a permanent location for the homeless shelter, mainly because of resistance from neighborhoods that don't want homeless people hanging around.

"We have done it three or four times, and it has not worked because the people react negatively," Coble said. "You can determine who is right and who is wrong, or we can try different strategies."

The city's strategy is to open the temporary shelter while other initiatives, such as Housing First, get off the ground. Housing First is an initiative to place the chronically homeless in permanent housing and bring the services to them.

"That's what cities are doing. They are not building emergency shelters anymore," Coble said.

Bennett said that while initiatives like Housing First are successful, they are just part of the answer.

"It's a spoke in the wheel of a comprehensive program that our community needs," Bennett said.

The shelter's opening comes after a cold front hit Columbia this week, sending overnight temperatures below freezing and causing city officials to open some emergency shelters, including the gymnasium at the Martin Luther King Park on Greene Street.