COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) – City of Columbia leaders are forming a task force to prevent and end homelessness in the capital city.
The task force will be chaired by At-Large Councilor Aditi Bussells and will include District 2 Councilor Ed McDowell, District 3 Councilor Will Brennan, Columbia Police, ward presidents and other community advocates.
The task force will study the root causes of homelessness and work to identify homelessness hotspots in the community.
“There is no one solution to homelessness,” Bussells said.
With this idea in mind, Columbia executives will consider several.
“I am very happy that we are taking a holistic approach that is not throwing this issue out on the road for someone else to deal with, but tackling it head-on by having open and honest conversations,” Bussells said. .
According to Bussells, the task force grew out of conversations with voters both during the campaign and during the two months. She said many have told her their main concerns are homelessness and public safety.
She believes her experience as a public health researcher will be essential to understanding the full extent of the problem.
“I think I have this unique ability to allow us to think about things critically and in a way that looks at the data, that looks at the science and makes sure that we balance the needs of our communities again with the health issues that so many of our homeless people face,” Bussells said.
To improve mental health services for homeless people and others in distress, the city will also expand its Pathways initiative.
This program integrates a clinician from the South Carolina Department of Mental Health with a Columbia Police Officer to respond to calls requiring mental health support.
Through the expansion, the city will add up to five additional clinicians. Currently, the Columbia Police employs only one mental health professional embedded with the Columbia Police.
Pathways Unit agents are certified crisis negotiators.
Senior Police Officer Christopher Bolling, who is the Columbia Police Pathways Unit coordinator, said a focus on mental health was a big deal.
“You can’t stop the problem,” he said. “It’s not good for the person in crisis because they’ll still be in crisis when they go to jail.”
Since deploying the Pathways Unit last fall, Columbia Police have helped more than 120 people in mental crisis, about a quarter of whom were homeless.
Through this initiative, they provided housing for some through the Department of Mental Health.
“We sometimes try to get them through DMH to house them, that way that takes care of them in two different ways,” Bolling said. “It helps them find a place to live and then it helps them with their illness because it gives them stability.”
Bolling said his work on this unit has been very rewarding.
“It’s sometimes very trying, even very emotional,” he said. “You almost get this instant gratification when you help someone. A lot of times as a law enforcement officer you don’t see what’s going on further into the privilege. You get this instant success right there. And that’s great, it makes you feel so good when that situation unfolds and you’re able to help that person, get them the help they need right now.
Bussells said the Pathways initiative is essential because substance use disorders and mental illness are the main things often seen in homeless people. These can often lead to crime and other public safety issues if not proactively addressed.
“We prevent things from happening completely, instead of having to react, right?” she says. “So I’m very happy that we’re taking this prevention-based approach to making sure that we let the police do their job of policing and that we let people who are trained in de-escalating the circumstances of mental illness, to address it in a way that people get the help they need.
Funding for the task force will come from the $27 million the city received through the Federal American Rescue Act.
The task force will produce a report in six months outlining action steps the city can take to address homelessness.
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